By Luana M. Graves Sellars

“The Corridor hasn’t begun to explore the depths and the richness of the culture that we have. Its jewel that we are working to uncover,” says Dr. Herman Blake, former Executive Director of the Gullah / Geechee Corridor. And with that statement began my discussion on what is the Gullah / Geechee Corridor and why a national designation was necessary.  For 400 years, the Gullah / Geechee people lived along 79 coastal sea islands from North Carolina to Florida and roughly 35 miles inland. The Gullah culture is a culture that continues today, however, it is a culture that has begun to diminish over time and needs to be recognized for its cultural significance as well as its role in American history. The Corridor was established to do just that.   

The Gullah / Geechee culture is the last vestige of fusion of African and European languages and traditions brought to these coastal areas. I cannot sit idly by and watch an entire culture disappear that represents my heritage and the heritage of those who look like me.”

Congressman James Clyburn

It took seven long years of dedication and hard work to prove the need and support the value of having the Gullah / Geechee Corridor, but finally by an act of Congress on October 12, 2006 (Public Law 109-338) the Corridor came into existence. It was authorized as part of the National Heritage Areas Act of 2006, after a 15 member Commission comprised of experts in historical preservation, anthropology and folklore among others, was created to manage what is now known as the Gullah / Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission.

As a national heritage area, the Gullah / Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is not considered a part of the national park system; however, the Congressional act authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to provide technical and financial assistance for the continued development and implementation of the management plan.  The Commission is on a constant search to preserve and protect the Gullah / Geechee culture, and provide the well-deserved historical respect and credit that the Gullah / Geechee’ s should have for their cultural contributions to American culture. There are so many parts of the Gullah culture that has been woven into America, it’s hard to count. The traditional spiritual “Kumbaya”  (Come by Here) which is sung in churches and is a favorite among the Girl Scouts, as well as the words “juke joint”, “tote”, “banjo”, “gumbo” are perfect examples. 

“It took more than seven years of work to get the bill passed into law, but today the commission is working hard on efforts to preserve and promote the nearly 400-year history of Gullah / Geechee culture that is the core purpose of my initiative. The sights, sounds and tastes of Gullah Geechee culture have been slowly vanishing along the coasts of North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.  The Gullah/Geechee way of life is an integral part of the Southern heritage,  and  I am committed to ensuring we protect and preserve it for future generations,” says Clyburn. Hilton Head is quickly becoming the heart of the Gullah / Geechee Corridor, not only due to its location at the “center” of the corridor, but also because of its historical richness and population of Gullah whose traditions and culture have always been a part of the lifeblood that sustains the island.  

Gullah culture is a face to face culture”

Dr. Herman Blake

The Corridor has its work cut out for it though. “Gullah culture is a face to face culture,” says Blake. Information has always been taught family to family. Which makes trying to get the older generation to entrust the corridor as outsiders with their stories and understand the value in some of their artifacts has been difficult. Currently, Blake is working on a video collection of Gullah elders recounting family histories so that the oral histories from our past can be preserved. The Corridor is looking for Gullah family reunions between the young and older generations having stimulating conversations that can be put on record as oral storytelling articulating how the families have survived maintaining their traditions.  The problem is that, in our technical age, sometimes the older generation is not so trusting to communicating by emails and or the phone.

Other than documenting the culture, the Corridor’s mission is to be a resource for all of the corridor’s community development organizations and their leaders in an effort to provide information and support to issues that have been prevalent within the Gullah communities, such as the erosion of the land to development and developers. On Hilton Head Island, the original Gullah residents owned close to 2000 acres. Today that number is down to around 700 and only 8% of the population. Daufuskie Island is now home to about only 9 native island residents.  “Land and its use of the land is important to the Gullah culture. Unfortunately, there has been a clash between tradition and development,” said Emory Campbell of the Gullah Heritage Trail Tours on Hilton Head Island.  Other tasks that the corridor has taken on has been adding argumentative support to communities such as Sapillo Island and the Harris Neck, Georgia where local issues of land loss has been an issue.  

If you are interested in documenting your Gullah stories or for more information about the corridor, check out their website here.

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