Native Islander Gullah Celebration

Native Islander Gullah Celebration

Date Observed: Month of February
Location: Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

The Native Islander Gullah Celebration is a series of events that are held on Hilton Head Island throughout the month of February each year. Developed to create economic opportunities for minority residents, the cultural festivities also add to area tourism and spotlight the uniqueness of the Gullah people living in the region, which includes a chain of isles known as the Sea Islands (see also Georgia Sea Island Festival and Penn Center Heritage Days).

Historical Background

In 1663 an English sea captain named William Hilton found an island off the coast of South Carolina. At the time, although both English and Spanish explorers had come aground and settled on nearby isles, only native Indian peoples inhabited what would come to be named Hilton Head Island. After Hilton's "discovery," the British took control of the island and established a plantation system to grow indigo, and later, cotton.

During the Civil War, the Confederates first occupied the island, but their position eventually was usurped by Union forces. When the War ended, many of the island's prior residents left, and the majority who remained were newly freed slaves.

The isolation of Hilton Head Island allowed residents to preserve much of their culture, primarily because they were cut off from the mainland and were able to maintain a close community, passing on their beliefs, folktales, crafts, language, and foods over the generations. The Gullah people are direct descendents of the first west Africans brought to the area as slaves. "Gullah" refers to the language, the culture, and the peoples along the southern Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida coasts. The language is a mixture of Creole, English, and African, heard and only truly understood by someone born and bred in the "low country."

The word Gullah may be a derivative of the name of the southwestern African country of Angola; many Gullahs trace their lineage to this region. Another school of thought attributes the word's origin to the Gola tribe that inhabits the border between Liberia and Sierra Leone. Various sources put forth both theories. Although there seems to be no complete resolution on the issue, there is basic agreement about the west African root of the word.

Because Hilton Head was, in effect, cut off from much of the modern world from the end of the Civil War through the mid-20th century, the Gullah people maintained a lifestyle unique in almost every aspect: how they farmed and fished, sewed and cooked, sang and praised during worship, and educated their children.

The Island seemed to escape the notice of the outside world until it caught the eye of hunters and developers in the 1950s. Three years into that decade, the first car ferry was operational; three years after that, a toll bridge connected Hilton Head Island to the mainland, and its days of seclusion were at an end.

Not surprisingly, however, development of the Island did not automatically bring prosperity to the native islanders. Regardless, the Gullah remain a proud people who are determined to cherish and retain their cultural heritage. In efforts to reach out to their extended west African family members, Gullah groups have traveled to Sierra Leone to participate in homecomings in 1989, 1997, and 2005.

Creation of the Festival

In 1996 the Native Islander Business and Community Affairs Association, Inc., (NIBCCA) hosted the first annual Native Islander Gullah Celebration. The event's initial aims were: (1) to create economic opportunities for Hilton Head Island's minority business owners; (2) to develop a cultural tourism market for the region; and (3) to significantly increase visitor traffic during the island's slowest tourism month, which, at the time, was February.


Every day in February can be viewed, unofficially, as part of the annual Native Islanders Gullah Celebration on Hilton Head Island. Officially, there is a published schedule of events each year detailing specific dates and activities. In order to capitalize on the growing number of state, national, and even international tourists who are attracted to the celebration, the major events tend to be scheduled, whenever possible, on Valentine's Day, Presidents' Day, weekends, and around schools' winter breaks.

In addition to a month-long art exhibit, an Arts/Crafts/Food Expo offers demonstrations of such crafts as the age-old art of sweet grass basket sewing and indigo dying. The yearly Ol' Fashioned Barbecue offers live entertainment as well as food. Gospel music may be part of the program, or a speaker, or an African dance group. National Freedom Day always draws a crowd, with its varied and inspired agenda. Some of the most noted highlights of the celebration month are the panel discussions in which guest residents share some aspect of Gullah traditions.

Contacts and Web Sites

Chicora Foundation, Inc. P.O. Box 8664 861 Arbutus Dr. Columbia, SC 29202 803-787-6910

Coastal Discovery Museum 100 William Hilton Parkway P.O. Box 23497 Hilton Head Island, SC 29926 843-689-6767

Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and Visitor & Convention Bureau 1 Chamber Dr. P.O. Box 5647 Hilton Head Island, SC 29938 843-785-3673 or 800-523-3373

Native Islanders Business and Community Affairs Association 21 Cardinal Rd. Hilton Head Island, NC 29926 843-689-9314 Hotline: 877-650-0676 or 843-682-3742

Further Reading

Branch, Muriel Miller. The Water Brought Us: Story of the Gullah Speaking People. Orangeburg, SC: Sandlapper Publishing Company, 2005. (young adult) Coakley, Joyce. Sweetgrass Baskets and the Gullah Tradition. Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2006. Goodwine, Marquetta L., ed. The Legacy of Ibo Landing: Gullah Roots of African American Culture . Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, 1998. Miller, Edward A. Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839- 1915. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. Pollitzer, William S. The Gullah People and Their African Heritage. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007

Native Islander Gullah Celebration

The Native Islander Gullah Celebration takes place annually over four weekends in February on Hilton Head Island, S.C. The event showcases the rich history and heritage of the island's Gullahs, the name for people of African origin inhabiting the islands and coastal areas of the southeastern United States. The word also refers to the language of these people, a rich mix of English and various African languages. The event was founded in 1996 to promote economic opportunities for minority business owners in Hilton Head and to boost tourism to the area, as well as to highlight Gullah arts, crafts, food, and history.
Entertainment at the celebration includes storytelling, traditional gospel music, African dance, and popular R&B and jazz. An expo provides demonstrations in such traditional arts and crafts as sweet-grass basket-making, indigo dying techniques, African "long-strip" quilting, and weaving fish nets. Other events include film and theatrical presentations and literary celebrations, with an emphasis on the vivid folklore, superstitions, and oral traditions of the Gullahs. A cultural symposium sponsors panel discussions of the Gullah language and culture.
Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration
P.O.Box 23452
Hilton Head, SC 29925
843-689-9314 or 877-650-0676
Native Business and Community Affairs Association, Inc.
21 Cardinal Rd., Ste. 105
Hilton Head Island, SC 29926
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
The Gullah culture, which has its origins in slavery, is kept alive with the annual Native Islander Gullah Celebration. This year's events take place February 6-28 at various sites on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.