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Hilton Head Island | Before The Bridge | Gullah Lifestyle

By Luana M. Graves Sellars

Culture can mean many things. Sometimes it can mean the difference in what we do or how things are done. In a culture that began out of the struggles and disadvantages of slavery, even minor things that are tangible, yet sentimental, and passed down generationally, like a Bible, an ancestral story or traditional way of doing things is a treasured gift. Gullah culture places tremendous value on its ancestors and the elders; their significance and wisdom that they impart on the community is invaluable. Most of the families can trace their lineage back five or even seven generations to the slaves that were on the island. The greatest gift that the Gullah slaves left behind, for their descendants was the land that they worked hard to earn from nothing; unimaginable and incredibly humble beginnings, so that the land could be passed down from father to son, from generation to generation. 

To the Gullah, acreage is more than just a lot that has value. It a priceless, tangible and visible daily reminder of the blood, sweat and tears that the ancestors experienced. Sure, land can be assessed and given a price tag, however, for the Gullah, because of all that went into the initial purchase of the land, the ultimate value of it is priceless.   

On an island that prides itself on the high price of a house with a water view, for the Gullah, even that is a cultural difference. The Gullah houses on the island, for the most part, were built in proximity to water, but not on the water. Based on historically weathered experiences and the guidance of ancestors, Gullah houses weren’t to be built at the water’s edge; they are set back as protection from eroding tides and storm surge. Gullah cemeteries, however, were placed in locations near the water, so that the spirit of the dead, would be able to travel easily back to Africa. 

Life on Hilton Head was simple, peaceful and family-oriented, yet built on hard-working people who lived off the land and its surrounding waters. It consisted of an active community that was primarily on the north end of the island that shared their skills and whatever they had with each other. The island was a network of giving and organization. “People were wonderful in how they took care of each other. Everyone was your mother.” 

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If a house needed to be built, the community would come together to build it. The concept of being indebted to someone monetarily was not the expectation, assistance was given out of one’s ability to do so and out of respect.   

“Gullah culture is a face to face culture.”

The stories and way of life were shared generation to generation. Information, however, was not shared amongst the children as much as it was adult to adult. The saying “little Pidgeon has big ears” meant that sometimes things weren’t told to children because they didn’t want information to be shared and they were also encouraged not to ask questions. 

Living off of the land or creek made oystering an important way of life. Traditionally, the men fished or laid the traps and the women shucked the oysters. The abundance of oysters made five processing factories an important part of the island’s economy. Workers were paid $7 a gallon to wash them, open the shells and drop the shells into a hole. On average, a productive day brought forth 6-7 gallons a day. Dr. Louis Cohen, curator of the Gullah Museum remembers that “my mother used the oyster knife so much, that her fingerprint is in the handle.”

Most families had a marsh tackies, which was used for local travel and farming.  Having a marsh tacky came with a significant pride in ownership. Considered one of the greatest true work-horses, they provided necessary assistance in plowing the fields and strength for moving large items.  The horses also were a great source of entertainment for racing on the beach or the annual Christmas marsh tacky races that went down Marshland Road.

Evenings brought people together as they went from house to house with food to fellowship. A variety of themed social clubs brought people together and during the holidays, some of them were known to go around “bringing the party with them”. 

Most of the neighborhoods had a “juke joint”, which is a Gullah word. Juke joints were gathering places where the newest music or dances could be found. During war times, when the Marines were based around Palmetto Dunes, a popular juke joint called “Doogie’s” was where the soldiers would frequent for their entertainment. Most of the other island juke joints were strictly for Gullah, costing 10 cents to get in. 

The island beaches, previously Gullah owned, and named after the Singleton and Burke families, were also very popular attractions on the weekend, known for having pavilions filled with music and food. The area beaches became so popular, that they eventually became a stop on the chitterling circuit, drawing huge crowds to the beach when Ike and Tina came and performed at the pavilion known as Burke’s Hideaway.

For more sections about Life Before The Bridge on Hilton Head Island | Education, Lifestyle, Medicine, Religion

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