What is the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor?

According the the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, “the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is a national heritage area created by the U.S. Congress in 2006. A national heritage area demarcates a nationally distinctive landscape shaped by natural, cultural, historical, and recreational resources. A heritage area tells a nationally important story through its geography, its natural and cultural resources, and the traditions that have evolved within the landscape. Congress has created 55 national heritage areas in the United States, but only the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor has a group of people and a landscape as its subject.”

Historically associated with the Atlantic coastal region that stretches from Wilmington, North Carolina, to St. Augustine, Florida, the Gullah Geechee are descendants of Central and West African ancestors, many of whom arrived in America through the transatlantic slave trade. The mixing of these diverse African peoples over time created the unique Creole Gullah Geechee culture, which has retained many African cultural expressions that can be experienced in the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor’s religious institutions, arts and crafts, architecture, music and food. Although focus has largely been on certain aspects of the culture, such as its rice growing, sweetgrass baskets and other rural traditions, the Gullah Geechee culture is much more and is also deeply ingrained in the region’s population centers. Here is a brief look into the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor’s five largest metropolitan areas.

5. Myrtle Beach–Conway–North Myrtle Beach, SC

2022 Census Population Estimate: 383,101 Largest city’s population: Myrtle Beach - 38,417 (2022 Census Estimate)

Myrtle Beach | Ennis Davis

Located in Horry County, South Carolina, Myrtle Beach is a city in the center of a long and continuous 60-mile stretch of Atlantic oceanfront known as the Grand Strand. While the city has a year-round population of 38,417, the metropolitan area attracts over 20 million visitors annually. A major resort area, Myrtle Beach is one of the most visited destinations in the country.

Home to historic Atlantic Beach, also known as the Black Pearl, unlike the other Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor metropolitan areas on this list, surrounded by the Waccamaw River and Atlantic Ocean, the Grand Strand remained isolated and rural through the mid-20th century. In fact, this author’s maternal ancestors were enslaved in this area and played an important role as the labor force that built the Intracoastal Waterway and Horry County’s oldest town and county seat, Conway.

Today, the Myrtle Beach metropolitan area is one of the fastest-growing in the country, increasing nearly 28% in population over the previous eight years.

An Atlantic Beach historical marker | Ennis Davis

This writer’s relative, Lee Grant Bellamy, feeds Maggie the mule at Freewood Farms in Myrtle Beach | Ennis Davis

Enslaved artifacts from The Island Plantation in present day Little River, S.C. Once owned by planter Jeremiah Vereen, the plantation is where this writer’s maternal ancestors were enslaved | Ennis Davis

4. Savannah, Georgia

2022 Census population estimate: 418,373 Largest city’s population: Savannah - 148,004 (2022 Census estimate)

Former cotton warehouses along Savannah’s River Street | Ennis Davis

Founded on the Savannah River in 1733, Savannah is the oldest city in Georgia and the state’s first capital. Known for its picturesque squares and a large vibrant historic district that attracts close to 15 million visitors annually, the city was a strategic port during the American Revolution and American Civil War. Prior to the Civil War, Savannah was a major transatlantic slave trade center, with merchants and planters importing a significant number of enslaved Africans from St. James and Goree Island and Sierra Leone. Although surpassed in population by other Southern cities during the early 20th century, Savannah continued to grow as a port and industrial center. The city’s population peaked at 149,245 in 1960 and dipped to 118,349 by 1970. Now a popular destination due to its wealth, architecture and history built off the back of slavery, Savannah’s population rebounded to an estimated 148,004 in 2022. Despite significant gentrification, historic African American neighborhoods, including the city’s Westside and Eastside, remain important centers of Gullah Geechee history, heritage and culture.

Savannah’s Broughton Street | Ennis Davis

Residences in Savannah’s historic African American Westside | Ennis Davis

Residences in Savannah’s historic African American Westside | Ennis Davis