The Sea Islands of South Carolina
Published: May 2009
By Catherine O'Neal
On South Carolina's once-isolated Sea Islands, Gullah is still spoken, African traditions are carried on, and salty marshes perfume the air.
Get The Facts.
"Welcome to the best place on God's earth," says the man behind the wheel of the gray 1985 Oldsmobile. We're driving on a slender road that eases across swirling sweet grass and dusky marsh toward a steely vault of ocean. Crabbers prowl the crimson swamp with dip nets, and fishermen on shrimp boats—their nets spread wide like angels' wings—pluck pearly shellfish from the river. As we gaze out our open windows, the car's ceiling liner flutters in the breeze and gospel seeps from the radio. Barely five minutes into our tour of the South Carolina Sea Islands, we're beginning to believe the Rev.
Not that there's any reason to doubt the Baptist preacher. He was, after all, conceived and nurtured in this haunting, wild, and watery land halfway between Savannah and Charleston. Born Joseph P. Bryant, he grew up speaking English, but gained fluency in Geechee and Gullah—the languages of his slave great-grandparents who toiled on the islands' rice plantations—as a child. Now, as reverend of the Third Macedonia Baptist Church in Burton (a suburb of Beaufort), he often delivers sermons in his acquired low-country languages. "My grandmother was full-blooded Gullah, my grandfather was Irish, and I picked up Geechee from living in Beaufort," the Rev says.
He's talking to four of us who have signed up for The Rev's Step-On Gullah Tours—"Step-On" as in, he'll "step on your tour bus" if you need him to. (Otherwise, he takes you around in his Oldsmobile.) It's Saturday, a good day for riding with the Rev, since he rarely gives his tours on Sundays, or if one conflicts with a wedding or funeral. Today he has a funeral after our outing, which is why he's wearing a black bowler hat and fresh-smelling aftershave.
Conducting local tours wasn't his idea, the Rev says. In fact, he started the business a year ago only because everyone kept asking him to explain the rich, obscure Gullah culture of the South Carolina Sea Islands. Most of his customers come from Beaufort, the Sea Islands' gateway. Often called "a little Charleston," Beaufort has all the allure of that city, without all the hubbub. Stroll Beaufort's sidewalks and you feel the Southern savvy, a poise that comes with intense natural beauty, colorful colonial history, and a steady flow of money. Grand Georgian and Greek Revival manses are washed pure white, Spanish moss weeps from the oaks, and magnolia trees are filled with birdsong.
Not surprisingly, Hollywood filmmakers adore Beaufort. Its formal houses and gardens, and boundaries of river, salt marsh, and sky, so surreal and cinematic, have been the backdrop for films of every genre, from The Big Chill to G.I. Jane. Movie people also love the Sea Islands, which start just a short bridge ride from Beaufort—but couldn't be less like it.
We sense the difference instantly as we ride with the Rev across St. Helena Island, cruising the two-lane "hard road" (make that "paved road" for the Yankees in the car). Flashes of a soft, long-ago South stream past the windows: clapboard cottages peeking out from pine forest, children playing in fields of wildflowers, Gullah farmers selling collards and corn from pickup trucks. Matchbox-sized seafood markets by the side of the road advertise "head-on" shrimp. The Rev veers down a clay-dusted path to show us one of the Sea Islands' numerous Gullah family farms—the former rice and cotton plantations Gullahs worked as slaves, then acquired after the Civil War. We stop to chat with folks who recognize the Rev, but we don't get invited in. (The only way to see the inside of a plantation house is by taking another tour, Cap'n Richard's ACE Basin Escapes, up the Ashepoo River to Bonnie Doone Plantation. The 10,000-square-foot mansion, built in 1931, is a replica of the original Georgian house, which General Sherman burned to the ground during his 1865 march to the sea.)
After the Civil War, the Gullahs were abandoned in the islands flung off the Carolina coast because the land was considered worthless. "There were no bridges, and the mosquitoes were so thick they'd carry you off," says the Rev. That abandonment and the century of isolation that followed have preserved the Gullah language, culture, and daily way of life. Families live for generations on the same farm, grow much of their own food, pick sweet grass to make baskets, and attend the one-room praise houses of their slave ancestors, where hymns are harmonized in Gullah and Geechee. According to the Rev, Geechee "is what citified types—mainland-dwellers from Beaufort and Charleston—speak, whereas Gullah is spoken by people of African descent living on the Sea Islands." Linguists, however, consider Gullah and Geechee two names for the same dialect—which sounds to the untrained ear like island patois peppered with colonial-era English.
Gullah, says the Rev, comes from a west African language and means "a people blessed by God." Elayne Scott, co-owner of the Red Piano Too gallery on St. Helena, believes they are. When the Virginia native arrived in the Sea Islands 25 years ago, she was "astounded by the richness of Gullah art." She was equally amazed that these self-taught artists weren't more widely known. During the sixties, Martin Luther King Jr. brought them into the public eye by campaigning for their rights at St. Helena's Penn Center. This cultural gathering place was founded in 1862 by Quakers eager to educate freed African slaves. Its white wood cottages are embraced by the ghostly arms of monster live oaks. "Sacred ground," proclaims the Rev, pointing to a forest cottage built as a hideout for King after he received death threats. (He was assassinated before he could stay there.)
Scott, who opened the Red Piano Too in 1992, says the Penn Center is still the lifeblood of the Gullah community, the place for weddings and church retreats. It's also where young artists learn how to replicate their surroundings. Much of the compelling art at Scott's gallery reflects the splendor of the Sea Islands, in particular the window-shade and tin murals of the late Sam Doyle. His portraits of local characters—a voodoo doctor, spiritual leaders, prostitutes—were painted in his yard on St. Helena. Finding canvas difficult to come by, Doyle worked on whatever surface he could salvage. Now his tin murals command up to $20,000 each and are sold alongside the books of low-country literary giant Pat Conroy.
Conroy, author of The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, and, more recently, Beach Music, lived in the Sea Islands as a teenager and later taught at Beaufort High School. His prose mines the mysteries of these islands, evoking sensations found nowhere else. In The Prince of Tides, he writes: "Breathe deeply, and you . . . remember that smell for the rest of your life, the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen, and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater."
These days, Conroy writes from his beach house on Fripp Island, a little-known retreat drifting off the end of the island chain. First developed in 1961 with a handful of cottages, the Fripp Island community has graduated to a golf-and-tennis resort with hundreds of high-priced houses and several clubby taverns on the tees. Locals say Conroy avoids the clubhouse crowds, preferring solitary walks on the beach. But he surely can't help noticing when Hollywood production teams film on the islands—especially when they're shooting the movie versions of his books.
In 1990, Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte showed up to film The Prince of Tides, which was a big deal in the Sea Islands. Since then, Hollywood stars have come here for work and for play, and few islanders give them bother. In fact, when Forrest Gump was shot on St. Helena, Hunting Island, and Fripp Island, the biggest gossip swirling around was that Tom Hanks ate a shrimp burger. Specifically, one of Hilda Gay Upton's shrimp burgers.
For 23 years Upton and her husband, Bob, have been serving shrimp burgers, sweet potato fries, and sweet tea at the Shrimp Shack on St. Helena. The key to the burger is, number one, using just-caught shrimp from Gay Fish Co. (owned by Hilda and her brothers). And, number two, making them the way the local fishermen have for years—which is "to beat the shrimp up with the bottom of a Coca-Cola bottle," Hilda says.
Instead of stopping for Hilda's shrimp, the Rev takes us to the Gullah Grub Café for traditional Gullah cooking—barbecued chicken, collard greens, sweet potato pie. The tin cottage is in "downtown" St. Helena, a three-way intersection right by the Royal Frogmore Inn. Someone says it feels as if we're back in the 1950's. But once the Rev shows us the headstones of pre—Civil War plantation owners, across the road from the unmarked graves of Gullah slaves, we realize it's more like the 1850's.
Throughout most of the South, African culture perished with the slaves. But in the Sea Islands it has been kept powerfully alive by women like Marquetta L. Goodwine, sanctioned "Gullah queen" by the United Nations. "She even spoke before the U.N. in Geneva," the Rev says. Queen Quet, as she's known locally, travels the country, spreading her love of Gullah life by performing what she calls "histo-musical" presentations in both English and Gullah.
Another woman, Natalie Daise, shares Gullah art and culture by means of Ms. Natalie's Workshop on St. Helena. Batik-patterned burlap lines the walls, and the gallery and studio floors are painted sky blue and decorated with turtles and fish. Shelves hold locally made candles, woven banana- and pineapple-fiber frames, African rain sticks, and Australian didgeridoos. In the back room, Daise shows children how to make bracelets using crystals and African ceramic beads—typical of a scene from her Gullah Gullah Island show on Nickelodeon, which ended its run last year.
But cultural proponents like Daise and Goodwine may not be enough to preserve the Sea Islands, says Hurriyah Asar, owner of the No Pork Café. Since the Georgia native moved to St. Helena six years ago, 30 percent of the island has been sold off. "Developers come in with cash, so they don't even have to deal with the banks," she says. "A lot of people are in denial, because the land has been in the same families for generations. But I sense fear."
Asar adds that at some point, she may be pressed to "look for a retreat from this retreat." In the meantime, her natural foods café and African gallery are flourishing in St. Helena. Travelers amused by the name (there's "no pork" on the menu) find shrimp creole, walnut steak, okra soup, and hibiscus punch made from the cut, dried flowers, peppermint, maple syrup, and fresh-squeezed lime juice. After lunch, they can rummage through baskets, drums, and woven dresses from Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria, or browse among books on African and other world cultures in Asar's 3,000-volume Afrikan Universal Library Museum.
From the café, it's an easy walk to Ibile Indigo House, where Nigerian textile apprentice Adesola Falade is heating up wax for batiks in an electric skillet. Ibile, pronounced "ee-be-lay," is a Yoruba term for "those who are messengers of our ancestors." The messages here resound from intricate images of African village life—seasons and harvests, births and deaths—depicted on brilliant fabrics, lampshades, and rugs.
In the front window of the studio and gallery, white doves coo inside a cage as Ibile's artistic director, Arianne King Comer, explains how dye patterns are created by melting down everything from broom bristles to chicken feathers. King Comer wears her hair in dreadlocks and has carved bands on fingers stained blue from dye. All morning she has been at a high school teaching the art of indigo, just as she does at Ibile. Raised in Virginia, King Comer moved to Detroit in 1974 and taught technical artistry. In 1992, the United Nations awarded her a grant to study the indigo-dyeing tradition in Nigeria.
That three-month pilgrimage transformed King Comer's work—and her life. While in Nigeria, she was reminded of a PBS docudrama she had seen called Daughters of Dust, which portrayed the Sea Islands' prolific indigo-growing past. Less than two years later, she moved to St. Helena and began working with farmers to resurrect the industry. She brought Nigerian dyers to teach their ancient skills. And she began getting calls from the Gap; they wanted to buy her ethereal designs as sketches for their own fabrics. Since 1994, she has provided the Gap with images for T-shirts, skirts, and tie-dye prints. And in the past year she has created 50 designs for Mavi Jeans, a Turkish design house recently reaching hip U.S. markets.
King Comer credits her Sea Islands surroundings with nourishing her creativity. In fact, she chose her 1940's studio for its proximity to the "sacred ground" the Rev speaks of at the Penn Center. "Penn had this power," she recalls of her first time in the area. "I looked at those old live oaks, and I thought, Anywhere that has this magic, I can live the rest of my life."
In the roomy back seat of the Rev's Oldsmobile, three of us dream of what it would be like to move to the Sea Islands. A couple from New Jersey imagines warmer winters, fresher seafood, and a slower, kinder way of life rooted in American history and tethered to the tides. I picture Pat Conroy, the original Prince of Tides, writing from his screened porch with nothing but marsh and Southern sky stretching to infinity. The Rev chuckles and assures us we're not the first to feel this way about his homeland. "Tourists are so infatuated by the simplicity of this place," he says, "that they sometimes change their address."
Beaufort is the access point to the Sea Islands, but visitors generally fly into Savannah or Charleston, then make the drive from either airport. Nearly every hotel and restaurant is a good value down here, and with a map and a convertible, you can navigate the region with ease.
RESORTS AND INNS
Craven Street Inn 1103 Craven St., Beaufort; 888/522-0250 or 843/522-1668, fax 843/522-9975; www.cravenstreetinn.com; doubles from $125. This 1870 Victorian house gleams with heart-pine floors, intricate moldings, and luxurious linens. Breakfasts, served on the porch, are indulgent (eggs Benedict, pecan waffles); in the afternoon, tea awaits in the antiques-filled parlor.
Cuthbert House Inn 1203 Bay St., Beaufort; 800/327-9275 or 843/521-1315, fax 843/521-1314; www.cuthberthouseinn.com; doubles from $145. Venetian chandeliers, cheese grits for breakfast, and the most comfortable guest rooms around—this 18th-century mansion has it all.
Beaulieu House 3 Sheffield Court, Cat Island; phone and fax 843/770-0303; www.beaulieuhouse.com; doubles from $125. An airy, welcoming, two-year-old B&B with a postcard-perfect location on Chowan Creek.
Fripp Island Resort 1A Tarpon Blvd., Fripp Island; 800/845-4100 or 843/838-3535, fax 843/838-9079; www.frippislandresort.com; doubles from $125. Fripp, the most exclusive of the Sea Islands (as in, only residents and guests get past the gate), is a country club community where the mainland preppy crowd goes to unwind.
BOUTIQUES AND GALLERIES
Red Piano Too Art Gallery 870 Sea Island Pkwy., St. Helena Island; 843/838-2241.
Ms. Natalie's Workshop 802 Sea Island Pkwy., St. Helena Island; 843/838-4446.
Ibile Indigo House 869 Sea Island Pkwy., St. Helena Island; 843/838-3884. Juxtaposition 720 Bay St., Beaufort; 843/521-1415. Beaufort's coolest boutique displays exquisite beaded bags from India, Putumayo CD's, and copper-roofed birdhouses fashioned from kitchen cabinets.
Shrimp Shack 1929 Sea Island Pkwy., St. Helena Island; 843/838-2962; lunch for two $20.
Gullah Grub Café 877 Sea Island Pkwy., St. Helena Island; 843/838-3841; lunch for two $20.
No Pork Café 847 Sea Island Pkwy., St. Helena Island; 843/838-4379; lunch for two $25.
Beaufort Inn 809 Port Republic St., Beaufort; 843/521-9000; dinner for two $70. Wonderful wines and elevated cuisine presented in a room with velvet draperies and carved mahogany walls.
Bistro 205 205 West St., Beaufort; 843/524-4994; dinner for two $64. Go on Fridays, when musicians play while diners indulge in seared tuna or pecan-crusted veal over spinach pesto linguine.
PARKS AND MARSHES
Hunting Island State Park 2555 Sea Island Pkwy., Hunting Island; 843/838-2011. Learn to crab like a Sea Islander at the park's weekly crab meet (nets and bait provided). The park, 5,000 acres of marsh and pinewood, also has guided kayaking trips and tours of its 1889 lighthouse.
Kayak Farm 1289 Sea Island Pkwy., St. Helena Island; 843/838-2008. Guides lead kayaking groups through the tidal marsh to shrimp-filled estuaries and remote isles white with snowy egrets.
The Rev's Step-On Gullah Tours 843/838-3185; $20 per person for a three-hour tour of the Sea Islands.
Cap'n Richard's ACE Basin Escapes 843/766-9664; $65 for half-day cruise, including lunch. Low-country native Richard Martin maneuvers his 19-foot skiff past wildlife-rich landscapes and former rice farms, including the reconstructed Bonnie Doone Plantation.