On an unseasonably warm December night in Beaufort County, a soulful melody hummed through the worn wooden churches and praise houses of South Carolina’s marshlands. “Watchman,” the voices sang in harmony, “tell me the hour.” It was the final day of the year, and time seemed to stand still as midnight approached. This was 1862, and the Gullah Geechee people knew they were on the brink of freedom.
These were the descendants of the people brought to the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia in the 1500s to work on plantations. They mostly came from western and central parts of Africa where the climate and land was comparable to that of the Lowcountry. Skilled in growing crops similar to the rice, cotton, and indigo that thrived in this coastal region, they were vital assets to the area’s farming industry.
But beyond agriculture, commonalities were sparse. These were people from an array of African groups who spoke different languages and practiced varying customs. The new land they were forced to live on was foreign, and so were their neighbors with whom they shared everyday life. But on that New Year’s Eve night, such age-old differences were far from the focus. Strangers became friends, and neighbors had become allies. “All they had was each other,” says Gullah chef and expert Benjamin “BJ” Dennis IV.
Such ties birthed Gullah Geechee, a marriage of cultures, where dialects and customs from a multitude of African villages combined to create a new way of life. In other regions of the nation, African slaves were heavily managed by white plantation owners and forced to assimilate to white culture; but in the Lowcountry, slave life was different.
When African slaves arrived in the region, tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever followed them. While the Lowcountry’s swampy plains were well equipped to grow rice, the environment also helped spread these deadly illnesses. The African slaves were typically immune, but white plantation owners weren’t so lucky, causing many planters to move away from their plantations. As the white population decreased, the number of African slaves inhabiting the land simultaneously increased due to growing rice production. Given their numbers and surprising isolation, they were able to preserve the unique cultures of their previous homes.
They developed their own vernacular to facilitate communication among the slaves from different tribes and with the slave owners; the language was English-based yet accented by African dialects. They also brought traditions such as basket weaving and spiritual melodies that they’d sing in the fields. On that night in 1862, it was these songs that helped pass the time as they waited for a new year.
Food was another way they held on to their past life. Many elements that are considered iconic Southern ingredients—like yams, okra, watermelon, peas, and rice—are rooted in African cuisine. But it’s not necessarily the soul food you’ll find at a modern lunch counter. “Gullah food is seasonal vegetables, it’s seafood, it’s real scratch cooking,” explains BJ. “It’s one of the original foodways of Southern cuisine. It’s one of the oldest, and to me, one of the most important bases that makes up Southern food.”
Early Gullah Geechee cuisine was built upon the land. The earliest slaves ate what they could find, whether that was rations or what grew in their backyard. This meant dishes such as communal vegetable stews (like soup bunch that BJ makes fairly often today) and adaptable rice dishes like perloo (a jambalaya-like dish made of an interchangeable combination of meat or seafood and rice) were common in the Gullah diet and still survive today.
Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, BJ’s parents had a backyard where they grew vegetables like peas and leafy greens, while his grandfather, a fisherman, always had at least a halfacre plot of okra each summer. For supper, his mother turned to dishes like hearty chicken, rice, and greens for meals to feed the family. He was raised inherently Gullah, but Gullah wasn’t something they discussed.
“We didn’t talk about it, it was something we just sort of grew up in,” he explains.
Until recently, the Gullah Geechee culture was overlooked. People didn’t know the story behind their fish and grits or okra stews. Visitors came to the Lowcountry’s bustling cities to indulge in regional foods without recognizing the self-sufficient slaves who’d created them. BJ himself admits he didn’t understand how special the Gullah Geechee culture was growing up. It wasn’t until he was living in the Virgin Islands that he realized his heritage was bigger than just the Lowcountry.
“People would hear me speak and ask if I was from St. Lucia or Barbados, and I’d be like, ‘No, I’m from Charleston, South Carolina,’” he says. “And they’d say, ‘Oh you’re one of those Gullah Geechee people,’ and it shocked me that a lot of folks across the West Indies knew about us.”
“Gullah is one of the indigenous cultures of this country, and it is the big reason why the Lowcountry is what it is.”
—BJ Dennis IV
In the United States, BJ says the Gullah Geechee culture was never really promoted. “You have to remember, you’re talking about a culture of African Americans in the South,” he says. But this newfound sense of identification sparked in him an unwavering familial pride. BJ embraced his Gullah Geechee culture in honor of the hard work and perseverance that preceded him.
“Gullah is one of the indigenous cultures of this country, and it is the big reason why the Lowcountry is what it is,” he says. “That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing—to bring notice to the culture.”
Today many claim Gullah Geechee is a dying tradition. But when you come to understand that the culture only ever inhabited a small, isolated region, it’s easy to realize that though the Gullah Geechee heritage hasn’t flourished into other communities, it also hasn’t been extinguished.
“Modernization caused people to move away from the land and spread out up north and along the West Coast and in other parts of the South, but it’s still a thriving culture here,” BJ says. “You’ve got to open your eyes and look. Look past what Charleston tries to sell you, and come look at the people.”
Gullah isn’t the centerpiece of Charleston’s famous King Street nor is it found in Savannah’s landmark restaurant districts. Instead, true Gullah is found on the winding roads of Edisto Island and the verdant swampy routes connecting one town to another. It’s the worn wooden haunts cooking up okra, crab, shrimp, and rice, and the home cooks who feed their families from backyard gardens and nearby waters.
Centuries ago, African slaves worked to preserve their home cultures because it was something they were proud of. They weren’t just singing a familiar song or cooking a favorite meal; they were protecting their identity so that one day their great-grandchildren would know where they came from.
New Year’s Day of 1863 was the day the Gullah Geechee people learned of their freedom. People eagerly flocked to a spot on Smith Plantation to hear the Emancipation Proclamation read aloud. There was a joyous celebration of music and cheering, because for people born into slavery, this was their first taste of freedom. Today, their descendants, like BJ, tirelessly work to keep their memory alive, whether it’s through a story told or a meal shared.