The Gullah Way Pt. 2
The rice growing and cotton picking Gullah days may have ended long ago, but visitors flying in and out of Hilton Head Island’s airport can still see the geometric rice field patterns in the marshes today, revealing the skilled design and labor of the Gullah people almost 300 years ago. The emancipation of slaves, though, ultimately doomed both the rice and cotton industries in this area.
Gullah religious practices, an important aspect of their culture, integrated many of the Christian beliefs of their former white masters. Some of the oldest churches on the island and in the Lowcountry are African churches, and the popular spiritual “Kumbayah” was first recorded and documented at First African Baptist Church, the oldest native congregation on Hilton Head Island. The church was established in August 1862 in the Village of Mitchelville after a military order was issued freeing blacks in the Sea Islands in early April of 1862. Mitchelville, on Hilton Head, was the first Freedmen’s Town in the South for liberated slaves.
Gullah traditions live on today with the preservation of their traditional arts of sweetgrass basket weaving, story telling, music and dancing. Sweetgrass basket weaving, an art passed down for more than seven centuries, can be seen demonstrated and for sale at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn on Hilton Head. These baskets were used by African slaves to sift rice, and the basket weaving art was brought with them when they came to the coastal regions in the 1700s as slaves. Sweet grass, pine needles and bulrush are all weaved together to make the beautiful textured baskets. It is, however, a methodical process that many Gullah fear will die out among the tech savvy, fast-paced present generation.
The Gullah name is also connected to a horse breed native to the Lowcountry, known as Marsh Tackies. There are fewer than 300 of them in existence today, but they’ve galloped around the Lowcountry and Sea Islands for more than 400 years. The Marsh Tacky developed from Spanish horses brought to the South Carolina coast by Spanish explorers, settlers and traders as early as the 16th century. Colonists used the horses during the American Revolution, and by South Carolinians for farm work, herding cattle and hunting throughout the breed’s history.
Oral history indicates that freed slaves were given 40 acres and a Marsh Tacky, and the horses were used for everything from delivering mail, bringing people to church and plowing the fields. Popular local events held on Hilton Head up until the 1960’s were racing derbies where Marsh Tackies would run on a stretch of beach, round an obstacle, and return to the finish. Winners were presented roses, just as any distinguished Thoroughbred would have received in a grand race.
Marsh Tacky races can still be seen; there are annual races on Hilton Head and Daufuskie Island. Visitors not fortunate enough to attend races on the beach can still spot Marsh Tacky horses across the street from Bluewater Resort and Marina, grazing in the grass and flicking their tails as they amble about inside their fence.