Rice and resistance: How the Gullah Geechee promote tourism on South Carolina’s sea islands

Georgina Lawton journeys through the swamps and riverways of the Gullah Geechee Corridor, a 400-mile coastal stretch on the southeastern edge of the United States. It’s a place of seafood and stories, where the ghosts of the past are never truly forgotten.

It’s 41 degrees Fahrenheit, and as Smith talks, the cold wind cuts through my coat. I imagine the difficulty of working in temperatures lower than this. The Varn & Son oyster and crab factory was the lifeblood of the community until it closed in 1985. Gail, a psychology major, swapped life at Pin Point for a college education. “The younger generation did the numbers,” she says. “We worked out that it would be better to get higher paying jobs elsewhere than carry on fishing.”

The museum has a TV room full of small benches. We sit and watch a 30-minute film about Pin Point, in which residents detail life in the community. People speak warmly of the food that fueled their lives here. “There’s something about the river that makes that food taste so good,” one man says, as a camera pans to fried fish. “You can have shrimp, crab, fish. What more can you ask for?”

The Low Country (or sometimes ‘Lowcountry’) region sits on South Carolina’s sea coast, stretching inland to the fall line. But to many South Carolinians, it’s also a state of mind. There’s a rice festival here each spring, and on more than one occasion during this trip, I hear the phrase: “A meal is not a meal unless you have rice.” I notice that ‘Red Rice’ is on restaurant menus all over Charleston and Savannah. On closer inspection, it turns out to be a variation on the Nigerian staple, jollof, made from rice, sweet red peppers, chilies and tomatoes.

Despite forced land evictions, climate change and the constant challenge of poverty, 200,000 Gullah Geechee people still remain in the US. One of them is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Many of the remaining inhabitants preserve the traditions of their ancestors through cooking, a skill which is also handy for tourism.

At the Gullah Geechee Visitor Center on St. Helena, I enjoy another traditional Low Country dish: The seafood boil. It’s soupy and slightly spicy, served in a cavernous one-pot and containing potatoes, corn, shrimp, sausage, onion and peppers.

Chefs Johnny Evans and David Rivers explain the dish’s origins as we serve ourselves, heaping our plates with cornbread and fresh salad. The rivers, reefs and marshes of South Carolina have long provided the basis of the Gullah Geechee diet: Shrimp, fish, oysters, crab. Seafood boil starts with leftovers—pig cut-offs and shrimp—before being seasoned and simmered with a traditional spice blend. “Seafood boil comes through the bloodline,” Evans says. One slurp and I see what he means.


African slaves were responsible for mapping out this region’s canals, and there are many slave-built irrigation systems still in use today. When they weren’t toiling, some slaves were permitted access to communion at a Praise House, a small wooden shack that functioned as a place for worship and local meetings.

We get to visit one Praise House that was built around 1900, close to the Gullah Geechee Visitor Center in Beaufort. Accompanying us is Reverend Kenneth Hodges of the nearby Tabernacle Baptist Church. “The Gullah Geechee have a saying,” he says, as we walk into the house, set close to a river and surrounded by trees. ‘’The water brought us and the water will take us.”

The Gullah Geechee knew that water separated them from their homeland. In many cases, when they died, they were buried near the water, in the hope that their spirits would return home.

As we step inside the Praise House, our local guide, an elderly bespectacled man, underscores the relevance of these houses, post-slavery. We sit on wooden benches as he teaches us how to speak Gullah. “Gullah isn’t a made-up language, it’s real,” he says, emphatically. “These Praise Houses were used for baptisms, meetings, settling disputes. It’s important to know where you come from.”

This shack is a reminder of the dual nature of the Gullah Geechee. Praise Houses are both a powerful symbol of rebellion against slaveowners, and their religion, and vital sites of rest and recovery for the Gullah Geechee people, who were forced to toil in seas and rivers for generations.

Their geographic isolation has helped preserve the Gullah Geechee’s distinct culture. But many communities today are threatened by rising tides, complex land-owning laws and private development. The National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Gullah Geechee Coast on its list of most threatened places in 2004, due to the rising tides. Queen Quet, a native of St. Helena Island and head of state for the Gullah Geechee community, spoke at Congress in 2019 to express how fishing prospects were dwindling due to rapid increases in water temperatures.

There are other threats, too. Gentrification and the desirability of coastal properties also pose a risk to many thriving communities. A lot of Gullah Geechee people don’t have deeds to their homes, and those who live on coastal properties are sometimes illegally forced from their land, or compelled to sell homes that have remained under communal ownership (as was tradition for generations) via a ruling known as ‘Heirs’ Property Law.’

Despite these obstacles, a plethora of boat trips, food tours and Gullah Geechee itineraries keep much of the region afloat. Tourism in South Carolina is one way in which the Gullah Geechee can protect and preserve their heritage.

On the last day of the tour, we’re lucky enough to catch a performance by a group of Gullah Geechee singers. They sing a story of traveling to escape a plantation, before launching into a rousing rendition of ‘Wade Through The Water.’ I’m reminded of the strength and determination of the Gullah Geechee, and the traditions that still thrive in this forgotten land of swamps, rivers and tidal estuaries.

The water brought us, and the water will take us.

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