Take A Black Heritage Road Trip Along The Gullah Geechee Coast
By Danielle Dorsey
The Gullah Geechee Corridor is a 12,000 square mile National Heritage Area that recognizes the unique cultures of the Gullah Geechee people who are the descendants of those brought from West Africa and Central Africa during the transatlantic slave trade. Occupying roughly 80 barrier islands, the Corridor is home to the Gullah people in the Carolinas and the Geechee in Georgia and Florida. A visit to the Gullah Geechee Corridor provides insight into how enslaved Africans used language, food, art, and tradition to keep their cultures alive.
For this edition of Black Heritage Road Trips, we take you along the Gullah Geechee coast, beginning in Florida and heading through the Georgia sea islands to South Carolina.
If you’d like professional help planning your tour of the Gullah Geechee Corridor, you can reach out to the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society in Georgia or Gullah Tours in Charleston, SC, which provides in-depth historical tours on Gullah Geechee culture.
Begin your trip in the oldest city in continental America, St. Augustine, Florida. Founded by Spanish explorers in the mid-16th century, this city represents both the beginning and end of slavery in America. Historical sources are mixed on whether the first Africans to arrive with the Spanish were crewmembers or enslaved, but the Spanish explorer who founded St. Augustine noted that free Blacks already had a presence in the nearby French settlement of Fort Caroline.
Nearby Fort Mose became an early stop along the original Underground Railroad and the country’s first free Black settlement in 1738. In the late 18th century, Jorge Biassou, one of the leaders in the uprising against the French in Haiti, came to St. Augustine and became a general with the Spanish army. A Black militia also helped save the city from invasion during the War of 1812, for which they received land grants from the Spanish governor.
St. Augustine also played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps the most well-known event occurred at the Monson Motor Lodge when Black activists integrated a whites-only pool and the motel owner responded by pouring muriatic acid in the water, which was captured on film by journalists. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed the next day.
Dive further into this history at the 40-acre Fort Mose Historic State Park, which offers a museum that tells the complete history of the first free Black settlement and hosts bird watching and water activities.
Afterward, head to St. Augustine’s historic downtown where you can join a public walking tour with St. Augustine Black Heritage and Civil Rights Tours.
Head to Amelia Island and catch some rays at American Beach, Florida’s first resort beach for Black Americans. Located in Jacksonville, the beach was founded by Abraham Lincoln Lewis, who founded the Afro-American Life Insurance Company and was the state’s first black millionaire. Stroll through the streets and you’ll notice they’re all named after the town’s Black founders and their families. During the height of American Beach popularity, it wasn’t unusual to see Ray Charles, Zora Neale Hurston, or Hank Aaron lounging along its shores.
It’s easy to immerse yourself in Black history in Savannah, a city which boasts a 55 percent Black population within its 136,000 residents. Visit the Beach Institute, Georgia’s oldest Black school which has been transformed into a museum and gallery that highlights local Black artists. If your trip coincides with a Monday evening, climb aboard the Savannah River Queen for their weekly gospel cruise, which includes two hours of soulful singing alongside a Southern buffet.
You’ll find plenty of Black-owned restaurants, retail shops, and other businesses to patronize in Savannah. Click here for a list of options.
Hog Hammock on Sapelo Island
Not far from Savannah lies the small community of Hog Hammock which is comprised mostly of Gullah-Geechee people. Sapelo Island is only accessible by plane or boat, meaning that locals bring all of their supplies from the mainland and children ferry into the mainland every weekday for school. The entirely of Hog Hammock is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and simply walking through the community offers plenty of history to explore. Be sure to visit the St. Luke Baptist Church, founded in 1885, and First African Baptist Church, established in 1866, as well as the island’s general store and only bar.
Itching for some adventure? Next, you’ll head to the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, a 2,824-acre wildlife habitat that is home to six manmade freshwater ponds, an extensive salt marsh, forested wetlands, a pine forest, plus 342 bird species, 83 of which breed on the refuge.
But perhaps the most fascinating part of the refuge is its connection to the Gullah Geechee. After slavery ended, white landowners deeded the plantation to freed slaves and it became a profitable rural community with a local church, cemetery, and school established. During World War II, the government purchased the property and established it as an army airfield. In 1962, the National Wildlife Refuge took ownership of the airfield and established it as a protected wildlife area.
South Carolina is perhaps the state that is most well-known for its ties to Gullah Geechee history and culture. As you make your way through the Palmetto State, stop in Georgetown and get more familiar with local customs at the Gullah Museum.
Located between Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach, Atlantic Beach remains the only current Black-owned beach in the nation, with most of its properties, retail shops, restaurants, and nightclub owned and operated by Black people. The beach hosts a “Black Bike Week” every year which draws tourists who celebrate Black motorcycle culture.
While in Charleston, be sure to visit The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture for more information about the Gullah heritage and Black history throughout America. The center offers exhibits, public programming, tours, and an extensive archival collection. Charleston is another Southern city with a large Black population and rich history to explore, visit this directory of Black-owned businesses to inform where you buy while traversing the Lowcountry.
Oyotunji holds the distinction of being the country’s oldest authentic African village. Approximately five to nine families currently live in the village and tourism helps support their livelihood. The village hosts festivals throughout the year that celebrate various Yoruba deities and holidays, visit their website to schedule a tour.
Penn Center on St. Helena Island
Perhaps one of the most significant stops along the Gullah Geechee Corridor is the Penn School Historic District on St. Helena Island. This National Historic Landmark contains 18 buildings in a 47-acre area that date back to the mid-18th century. The oldest building is the Brick Church, which was built in 1855 by enslaved Africans and was used as a church, community center, and an abolitionist school during the Reconstruction Era. It was one of the first schools for newly emancipated Blacks.
The district also includes the Gantt Cottage where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Leadership Conference often met during the Civil Rights Movement.