The Gullah Way
In the Gullah culture of the Lowcountry and the Sea Islands that make up our area, you’re either a “Binyah” or a “Comyah.” In other words…a native or a transplant. I like to think that makes me a “Binyah,” since I’m native to Hilton Head Island.
My father’s life experience as an early islander gives an outsider a certain glimpse that might otherwise go unseen. He was coined a “Comyah” and will be for life. My parents moved from the bustle of New York City to Hilton Head Island in 1970, as my father was offered a job working for Charles Fraser, the developer of Sea Pines Plantation.
My father, Glen McCaskey, said that when they moved from the North to Hilton Head Island, all of the local fishermen were Gullah. The Gullah, he said spoke with very thick accents. He described it as a very “lilting accent. It is very lyrical. It has a great cadence to it.” He further commented, “When we first moved down, any oyster man, farmer, shrimper…all were Gullah men. You would often see them at the gas stations, vegetable stands, food stands. There were more Gullah on the island than there were white people.”
The Gullah culture is rich in heritage in the Lowcountry and especially on Hilton Head Island, stemming from the slave descendants who stayed and made the area their home. Their culture arose from slaves brought to South Carolina and Georgia from countries like Sierra Leone and Angola to work the rice, cotton and indigo plantations thriving in the region. In addition to slaves and settlers, malaria and yellow fever also found a new home in the Lowcountry, pushing white planters away during rainy season. The owners left their plantations in the capable hands of African overseers, a practice they kept up well into the American Civil War. Both of these circumstances provided opportunities for the Sea Island slaves to keep their African traditions alive with a richer quality than inland cities and states had.
Gullahs continued to practice their traditional culture with little influence from the outside world well into the 20th century. Historians, linguists, and anthropologists have flocked to study their culture. The Gullah preserve their unique way of life and have developed local museums, exhibits, festivals and raised awareness of Gullah.
The first scholar to make serious in-roads to the linguistics of the Gullah language was the late Dr. Lorenzo Turner, who published his findings in 1949. As a Black American he was able to win the trust of the Gullah people and discover what had been previously undiscovered by researchers. One such find was that certain Gullah men and women, living in isolated rural areas of South Carolina and Georgia in the 1940s, could still recall simple texts in various African languages—texts passed down generationally and still intelligible.
Hilton Head Island has a rich story to tell. Right behind vacation resorts are back roads still unpaved, with homes built by freed slaves and the Gullah still practicing their native trades of ship building, shrimping, basket weaving, and oyster harvesting.