Finding My Gullah Rootson South Carolina’s Hammock Coast®
By Luana M. Graves Sellars
Discovering my lineage has been a frustrating, yet intriguing, puzzle for more than a decade.
Growing up on red rice and okra, I often heard my aunts identify themselves as Geechee every once and in a while. Only recently, have I understood what a Gullah Geechee is.
As a child, I hated International Day in school; that day when each child would proudly say that they were of Italian or Chinese or German descent. Why? Because even though I’d say that I was Black or African American, it didn’t mean anything to me. Black what? Or Africa where? Identifying as an African American said to me that I was from the largest continent in the world; not a country and certainly not a specific culture.
It’s interesting how life can lead you on unexpected paths. I've been on the journey to discover my genealogical and cultural roots for quite some time now, but I never thought that moving from Florida to South Carolina would make such a drastic change. Further expanding my travels within South Carolina—from Ravenel to Hilton Head and now to Georgetown County—has taken me deeper into discovering who I am.
My sojourn to Georgetown County, delightfully known as South Carolina’s Hammock Coast®, was a life-altering trip that I shared with my mother and youngest daughter.
And strangely enough, during the drive to Georgetown County, for some reason, I felt like I was going to a familiar place, like home.
Research reveals that close to 80 percent of Black Americans who descended from the enslaved have Gullah Geechee roots. The majority can trace their roots back to the federally designated Gullah Geechee Corridor, which runs from North Carolina to Florida along the sea island coastline. Records show that Gadsdon Wharf in Charleston was the largest slave port, making South Carolina’s slave population significant. Charleston, however, was not the only incredibly active port along the coastline. The substantial amount of rice that was being exported out of the Port of Georgetown made it the largest and most active for the crop.
My family puzzle has been taking shape for years. And that 80 percent statistic is becoming more significant to me. My family, on my maternal side, was probably one of the many who came through Charleston, which is about 60 miles south of Georgetown County.
Our patriarch is Caesar Ravenel Sr., whose birth information is unknown. His son, Caesar, for years was only just a grainy picture (shown at left) (shown above). Eventually, I found his birth in 1847 census records, U.S. Colored Troop service, and death certificate. Only recently, did the discovery of the Ravenel Plantation in Georgetown County, as well as his birth there in the Black River community, come to light.
Not only have I been able to come closer to connecting to my lineage, but more importantly, my origins in America. My time in historic Georgetown and the Hammock Coast was the beginning of an exciting discovery that I’ve been waiting for all of my life.
The Hammock Coast is full of an incredibly rich Gullah Geechee history and cultural attractions that I was excited to explore and, possibly, fill in the gaps to my story. My quest to complete my family puzzle, you might say.
My first stop was to Murrells Inlet and Brookgreen Gardens, a former plantation that has been a much-celebrated and world-renown sculpture garden for the past 90 years. At Brookgreen, established by Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, you will discover the Lowcountry Trail and Gullah Gaardin (not a typo, that’s Gullah for Garden). The trail began with an exhibit, details about the plantation and the process of rice cultivation. An amazing room-sized aerial map, brought the county and its geographic and environmental proclivity for rice production into focus. It wasn’t until I reached the final panel that I found out that the former owner of Brookgreen Plantation, Joshua Ward, was the slave owner of my maternal line!
Amazingly, just in my first few hours in Georgetown County, my mother’s entire lineage was found! Not only did I uncover a deeper connection to my Gullah roots, but I discovered where both my maternal matriarch (Ward) and patriarch (Ravenel) came from! Ward was the largest slave owner in the country and who owned Brookgreen Plantation and more than 1,100 enslaved people.
As we walked past the sculptures along the Lowcountry Trail, images of each role within the plantation are represented: Ward, the owner; a caretaker; and a male and female slave. Each one was solid, yet transparent; like they were there at one time, yet no longer there.
The slave images made me pause. This land is where my ancestors were enslaved and survived. It’s where they most likely planted and cultivated rice. It was also where, listed among the roster of slaves, that I saw the names Catherine and then George, probably my Ward ancestors from 1850, side by side among at least a hundred other names.
Suddenly, the stunning beauty of the gardens and the massive live oaks made me wonder if they were also seen by my ancestors. Was the expanse of the former rice field one that they worked? I couldn't help but wonder about all of the incredible stories of survival that the very ground that I stood upon could tell.
Brookgreen was suddenly a sacred place, one that I was saddened to realize that my 96-year-old grandmother and our family of five generations should have been experiencing with us. As we walked, the story of George and Catherine became clearer and my connection became that much stronger. My knowledge of my culture became more prominent; in the gaardin, looking out across the former rice field, I understood now, why I had felt drawn toward this incredible place.
Brookgreen wasn’t the only place where I felt connected. I learned where Caesar was born enslaved in the Black River community, which was at one time the Winyah Indian settlement and trading post. Today, it doesn't have a name, nor does the Ravenel Plantation, where he was enslaved, exist any more. None of that mattered. What was important was that Georgetown County is where my American story began and now I wanted to know more about the experiences of my ancestors.
From Murrells Inlet, I drove 20 minutes back south to the historic city of Georgetown, where I visited the Georgetown County Museum and the Rice Museum. At these wonderful museums, I was able to see exactly why and how Georgetown, where five rivers merge into Winyah Bay, made it the richest city in South Carolina and home to more than 150 plantations. Each river was lined with dense swamps with deep-rooted Cypress trees that enslaved men cleared by hand. Ultimately they prepared 45,000 acres of rice fields that produced half of all the U.S. production of rice – a staggering 35 million bushels a year. The importance and value of rice in Georgetown led to the largest slave population in the world, and even though rice slaves were more valuable economically, the work was treacherous with an average lifespan of 2-3 years once enslaved.
Sea island communities, like Georgetown, due to the climate and terrain, were perfect locations for cultivating rice, especially the high-quality seed of Carolina Gold. With that in mind, it’s easy to assume that both Catherine, George and both Caesars were rice laborers of some sort.
The success of rice in the United States was a result of the ingenuity of skilled and enslaved West Africans, who engineered a tidal flow system throughout the rivers with the strength of the Hoover Dam and as structurally incredible as the Egyptian pyramids.
Historic Georgetown is an amazing port town with a strong Gullah Geechee culture. Of course, spending time at the Gullah Museum — yet another museum in the city of Georgetown (there are a total of five museums there!) – and listening to the curator, Andrew Rodrigues’ powerful, yet softly spoken, stories while surrounded by an eclectic collection of Gullah artifacts was another treat.
Aside from the museums, Gullah hospitality and culture was confirmed with (a few) dinners at Aunny’s Country Kitchen on Front Street in Georgetown. It’s where three generations of Andrea “Aunny” Johnson’s family greeted us as if we were eating in their home. We bonded over our Gullah Geechee connection and delicious southern comfort food served by the incredible Diamond Goings. Every meal was more than casual conversation, it was a genuine welcome; a “let me call so and so”; a “how can I help you”, type of cultural hospitality that’s pure and simply Gullah Geechee.
Three days in Georgetown County wasn’t enough for us to absorb the entire quaint waterside communities of the Hammock Coast — the shops and Harborwalk in the city of Georgetown and the extraordinary Brookgreen Gardens and Huntington Beach State Park in Murrells Inlet.
No, my short time on South Carolina’s Hammock Coast, with all its rich and significant Gullah Geechee history, only scratched the surface. I know there’s so much more to discover. The Hammock Coast holds my Gullah connection, and I know that it probably holds that of countless other Gullah Americans like me who are searching for someplace to connect to. Being in Georgetown County was a soul-stirring experience for all of us. We didn’t have time to visit the South Carolina Maritime Museum, Hopsewee Plantation, Plantersville or Sandy Island, one of the last three remaining active Gullah communities in the U.S. that’s only accessible by boat, but we will.
In the meantime, I’m still working on my puzzle. It’s going to take more time, but the image is becoming clearer, especially when I figure out when I’ll be back to the Hammock Coast.
Luana Graves Sellars
A native-born New Yorker, Luana M. Graves Sellars quickly discovered that weather-wise she was really "a misplaced Floridian". Even though she has degrees in journalism and Black history, she wasn’t prepared to live on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, one of the most culturally rich and historic areas of the South. A passion for her Gullah Geechee roots led her to become a cultural influencer and preservationist through her writing which is focused on educating others, as well as documenting Gullah culture, its history, and people. In 2021, Luana started her own company, Sankofa Communications, which expanded into visual media, where she also writes, directs, and produces cultural videos and documentaries. The founder of the nonprofits Lowcountry Gullah and the Lowcountry Gullah Foundation, Luana is also a keynote speaker and community activist who is doing her part to sustain and preserve Gullah Geechee culture for future generations.