St. Helena Island, the Land of Gullah

DianeBrittonDunham – Gullah artist

I like to call it one of the last frontiers – St. Helena Island the Land of Gullah.

Biscuits, butter beans, and pecan pie are more than just shared recipes; they are the things that bind us together and give us comfort. We need comfort now more than ever before. I’m drawn to the simplicity of life on our Sea Islands where folks know how to survive and live off the land when necessary.

I drove out across the Beaufort bridge a few days ago looking for some small feeling of normalcy to life during these difficult days. I drove across the Chowan Creek bridge, past lazy pastures, a few mom and pop stores, now boarded up, and watched as the years peeled back. I now was in the center of Gullah culture, a peculiar people with mysterious ways. I turned left onto a dusty, rutted road surrounded by saltwater marshes.

The descendants of African slaves who were brought here to work on the rice plantations, live mostly on these remote islands and have preserved much of their culture, such as their African-based Creole language and their expertise in sweetgrass basket-weaving.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, barefoot legions of enslaved Africans arrived on our shores.  With them came their knowledge of rice cultivation, farming, and the seeds of vegetables such as okra, watermelon, tomatoes, peas, sweet potatoes, and peanuts.

          Artist Jonathan Green depicts two slaves threshing the rice.

threshing lowcountry home rice by jonathan green 21799994162 o

They are resourceful and know how to endure hardship. One of the largest communities of Gullah people is right here on St.Helena Island. This is home to Penn Center, one of the most significant African American historical and cultural institutions in existence today. It’s a national Historic Landmark located along both sides of Land’s End Road near Chowan Creek.  Founded in 1862, Penn Center is the site of the first school for freed slaves.  One of the cottages on the property is where Martin Luther King wrote his “I have a dream speech.”


One of the most enduring legacies of the Gullah people is their commitment to a spiritual way of life. The church is as important to their way of life as breathing.

The Praise Houses of St. Helena Island are one of the many significant links to Beaufort’s, and the South’s historic past still in existence today. Like in Africa, the Gullah way of life has always centered around their faith. The Praise House back years ago was their community center where they met, danced, stomped their feet and shouted praises to the Lord!

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Painting by Kevin Chadwick of a young Gullah girl hanging out the wash.

Wash Day 30 x 24 mixed media on canvas

Once upon a time, these tiny, plain white, small frame, little houses were all over the island countryside. The normal size was only about 18 x 20 with wooden benches inside along the walls.  Several more benches would be in the middle with a stand at the front of the room where the preacher would address the congregation. At one time there were as many as 25 praise houses but today only four remain.

The size of the houses was intentional in order to prevent too many slaves from gathering at one time.  Slave owners always feared an uprising. After Emancipation, locals continued to build praise houses near the plantations where they lived and worked.  They became central points of contact in the community and sometimes were even used as an elder’s cabin.

The ones that remain today are the Mary Jenkins Community Praise House, the Croft Plantation Praise House, The Eddings Point Praise House, and the Coffin Point Community Praise House.IMG 3867 1

The slaves were given rations but were able to supplement them with whatever they could catch or grow on their own.

One of the most popular dishes was their shrimp and okra.  Okra came over on the slave ships from Sierra Leone, Africa and soon became abundant across the island. They would serve it over bowls of rice to create a feast for their entire family.


This picture depicts the awesome power of our live oaks which at one time provided shelter for the plantation workers. Since many oaks live 500 years and beyond, no doubt this one was alive in the 1800s providing welcome shade for slaves from the torrid summer sun, standing sturdy since the time of slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation.

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