Step back in time with a visit to the capital of the Gullah Geechee nation, St. Helena Island, South Carolina
by Andrew Alexander
Featured image: The Penn Center on St. Helena Island is now a historic site and museum that tells the history of the area (Image courtesy Penn Center).
Just a little over four hours by car from Atlanta, there’s a beautiful, under-the-radar island with its own queen elect, its own flag, and its own distinct culture, language, and traditions. Although development and change have been encroaching for decades, a visit to the heart of the Gullah Geechee corridor, St. Helena Island, South Carolina, still feels like a step back in time and a visit to another country.
Many farms and homes have remained in the same families for generations since the end of the Civil War when grants of land were first passed on to formerly enslaved African-American heads of households. As with other coastal islands in the Southeast, gentrification threatens to displace the tight-knit communities, but more restrictive development regulations on St. Helena have helped the island retain its strong rural character and connections to the past.
With its pride of place, meandering tidal creeks, shimmering marshes, hidden beaches, beautiful farmland, and evocative landscapes of waving sawgrass and ancient moss-draped oaks, St. Helena Island is one of the most amazing and magical destinations in the Southeast.
What to do:
Visitors driving from Atlanta will likely pass through the charming town of Beaufort, South Carolina, on their way to nearby St. Helena Island. In Beaufort, stop at the Gullah Geechee Visitors Center, a great way to get an overview of the region and its history before heading out to the island itself about 15 minutes away by car.
The term Gullah Geechee refers to the unique culture of the descendants of enslaved West African people living in the sea islands of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. As a whole, this area is known as the Gullah Geechee Corridor, and St. Helena Island is one of its most prominent and enduring centers.
The tiny town of Frogmore (where the famous shrimp-based “Frogmore stew” gets its name) is the commercial heart of St. Helena Island. The nearby Penn Center, established just after the Civil War as one of the first schools for formerly enslaved people, is now a cultural center and museum that tells the story of the Gullah people, and it is the best place to start your tour of the island.
Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. loved visiting St. Helena from Atlanta, and he stayed at the Penn Center during the tumultuous Civil Rights era for quiet spiritual retreats. He wrote some of his most famous speeches there, including “I Have a Dream.” King stayed at the property’s Gantt Cottage, a spare, one-room, wooden residence set in a quiet grove of oaks.
The Penn Center’s annual Heritage Days celebration, now in its 37th year and slated for November 7-9 of 2019, celebrates Gullah culture with activities including folk arts, music, crafts, storytelling, a parade, and a fish fry.
The Brick Baptist Church located near the Penn Center was constructed in 1855 and is now a Reconstruction Era National Monument, a designation established by President Barack Obama in January of 2017 (it’s one of the only sites in the nation dedicated to commemorating the era of Reconstruction). Dr. King first practiced his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech in front of a small audience in the tiny Brick Baptist Church before giving it to a crowd of thousands at the historic March on Washington in 1963.
The nearby Red Piano Too Gallery in Frogmore offers an interesting selection of crafts and artwork by local artists, many of them depicting scenes of traditional Gullah life. Also be sure to stop at the picturesque ruins of St. Helena Parish Chapel of Ease, an 18th-century church which was initially built for plantation owners who didn’t want to travel to cities on the mainland for church services, but which now sits in a state of evocative, open-roofed decay.
Exploring the island and environs:
St. Helena Island actually consists of dozens of tiny communities, each with its own name and distinct feel. Lands End (sometimes referred to as Fort Fremont) is a small community at the southern tip of the island which is home to Fort Fremont, a former military battery. Some say the site is literally haunted, and it’s easy to see why: exploring the quiet, often-empty ruins is downright eerie. The surrounding park includes a beautiful, quiet little strip of beach facing the coastal Beaufort River.
Lands End provides great access for water activities and for exploring the area by boat. Contact the Gullah Geechee Sea Island Coalition or Lands End Tours & Kayak Rentals for more information about boating in the area.
Little Horse Island is a small private island near St. Helena that can’t currently be visited, but it’s interesting to note that miniature wild ponies, direct descendants of “marsh tackies,” a breed of stocky horses native to the Sea Islands, still run free there. There are plans to designate a sanctuary for the ponies and to create a viewing platform for visitors in the future.
Less scary than it sounds, the community of Coffin Point is worth a visit to pay respects to a small cemetery that has been maintained by the local community since the days of Reconstruction and for its beautiful, quiet, isolated beach with views across the Saint Helena Sound. The one-room, white clapboard Coffin Point Praise House has served as a spiritual gathering place for Coffin Point residents for more than 100 years.
St. Helena Island has many small inland beaches facing rivers, creeks, bays, and sounds, but no big wide beaches directly facing the Atlantic Ocean. A short drive away, Hunting Island’s undeveloped, ocean-facing beach stretches for miles, and it will satisfy anyone who thinks a visit to the coast isn’t complete without a day at the beach. The entire 5000-acre island is set aside as a state park, offering the beach, trails through the woods, and the chance to explore an 1859 lighthouse.
On the Screen:
St. Helena and Hunting Island provided the backdrop for Julie Dash’s seminal 1991 film Daughters of the Dust about a Gullah family facing the enormous changes of the early 20th century.
If you’re visiting the area with children, track down some episodes of the educational program Gullah Gullah Island, which aired on Nickelodeon from 1994 to 1998. St. Helena served as the model for the fictional island in the series.
The main roads and arteries cutting across St. Helena Island can get surprisingly busy, but the island itself is almost completely flat, making it pleasant for exploring some of the quieter backroads by bike. And not too far from St. Helena Island is a biker’s paradise, the Spanish Moss Trail, the region’s answer to the BeltLine. The Trail consists of a former railway line cutting through beautiful Lowcountry landscapes, connecting the town of Beaufort to the town of Port Royal via a paved four-mile bike and walking trail.
Where to eat:
MJ’s Soul Food, run by Saint Helena Island natives and sisters-in-law Mary Holmes-Jenkins and Susan Pessie-Jenkins. serves delicious Lowcountry specialties. Evenings in the friendly, old-school restaurant can feel like a combination between a town-hall meeting and a celebratory family feast.
Gullah Grub in downtown Frogmore caters more to visitors than locals, but nonetheless preserves tradition and serves up hearty Gullah food in a historic building. The owners also run Marshview Community Organic Farm, where much of the restaurant’s fresh produce is grown.
The hours at Shrimp Shack can be frustratingly unpredictable, but you can always tell when the fantastic little fast-food seafood joint is open: the parking lot outside will be completely full. Shrimp straight from docks a few hundred yards away are fried in a delicate tempura-like batter or pressed into burgers. Try both with sweet potato fries and an iced tea.
While on St. Helena Island, be sure to stop at one of the several local farmers’ markets and buy some of the justifiably famous produce grown in the rich alluvial soil. The heirloom tomatoes are huge, and unforgettable. If you want to pick the produce yourself, try Dempsey Farms, and for the freshest seafood on the island, stop at Gay Fish Company which sells the day’s catch straight from the dock.
Where to stay:
The charming and posh nearby town of Beaufort, South Carolina, has a number of bed and breakfast and Airbnb options, in addition to a wide array of chain and independent hotels. To stay in a hotel on St. Helena Island itself, look into Rodeway Inn, the island’s only hotel in the center of downtown Frogmore. There are also dozens of Airbnb options on St. Helena.
Tuck in the Wood offers camping near a lake tucked in the woods not far from the Penn Center, and Camelot Farms Equestrian Center near Coffin Point offers a guest house, camping, and the chance to explore the island on horseback.
Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based writer and founder of The Alexander Report.
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