The Gullah Geechee were formerly enslaved people who settled in the Low Country, from North Carolina to North Florida.
The single largest concentration of their descendants came to Jacksonville, but the city hasn’t largely celebrated that culture.
Due to a number of isolated islands along the coastline, the Gullah Geechee settled in remote areas after the abolition of slavery, forming a unique culture and strong communal ties that still remain today. In recent decades, some communities in the low country region, such as Charleston, South Carolina, have developed a strong tourism base around the history and contributions of their local Gullah Geechee population’s language, arts, crafts and cuisine.
With this in mind, here’re five things you’ll find in abundance in Jacksonville that are a direct tie back to the region’s Gullah Geechee heritage.
Rice may be the most common Gullah Geechee dish in the country to originate in the surrounding area. With Jollof rice being a staple in West African dishes and the Lowcountry being an ideal environment with the perfect climate for the production of rice, planters used the cultivation and tidal irrigation skills of their enslaved population to make rice production into one of early America’s most successful industries. Commonly associated with the American colonies of Georgia and South Carolina, rice production was also a major crop in Northeast Florida, which was under Spanish and British rule. 18th and 19th century rice growing plantations included Jermyn Wright’s White Oak Plantation in Nassau County, James Grant’s Mount Pleasant Plantation near the headwaters of Guana River in St. Johns County and Zephaniah Kingsley’s plantation on Fort George Island.
The settlement took shape following the civil war when families of former enslaved Gullahs made a life for themselves by establishing a community around hunting, farming, mullet fishing, crabbing, shrimping and harvesting oysters at Mill Cove. It included 40 acres deeded to James Bartley as a part of the Southern Homestead Act passed by Congress in 1866. This property was a part of more than 40 million acres of land that was set aside for free blacks and whites that had been loyal to the Union. At its height, the community boasted a post office and school.
Cosmo remained in isolation until the construction of the Mathews Bridge and development of Arlington during the 1950s. During the following decades, river dredging negatively impacting Mill Cove’s marine line, displacement and suburban gentrification has led to Cosmo’s decline. Now known as Fort Caroline, remnants of the rural 19th century fishing community include the Palm Springs Cemetery, the Alexander Memorial United Methodist Church and a few houses scattered in heavily wooded areas tucked between modern subdivisions.
3. Haint Blue
It’s not uncommon to find many houses throughout Jacksonville’s urban core featuring haint blue porch ceilings, window frames, shutters and doors. Originating from traditional Gullah Geechee culture, a haint is a restless wandering spirit, trapped between life and death. Many believe that a haint blue color resembling the sky would protect occupants in the home by drawing the spirits up and away. Another belief is that spirits would be blocked from entering the home because they can’t cross over water and would be confused by the blue colors around window and door openings. Whatever the belief, the Gullah custom of apply a haint blue color on porch ceilings, door and window openings is alive and well throughout the American South.
4. Shrimp and Grits
Originally created by Native Americans through the grounding of corn, grits were passed on to the Gullah people as a part of their food allowance provided by plantation owners. Maximizing local resources along the coast, Gullahs caught and used shrimp and fish in a variety of ways, including combining them with grits. What was once a simple Gullah meal prepared by using food allowances, natural seasonings and readily accessible low country seafood is now a staple of Southern cuisine and a pricey dish on the menu of the area’s trendy restaurants.
5. Seafood Boil
Many classic Southern dishes served at area restaurants are actually derived from Gullah Geechee culture. One-pot dishes and other recipes featuring the region’s abundant shellfish and locally cultivated rice and fresh vegetables, forming a hodgepodge of flavors, are a cultural foundation of Gullah Geechee cuisine. Many of these one-pot dishes involved the deep frying, boiling, steaming and baking of seafood and food types consistent with those received in weekly plantation rations. The seafood boil is an example of a popular one-pot dish that took advantage of quick preparation and cooking time utilizing ingredients that were readily available locally. In addition, Garlic Crabs are a popular local variation of the boil that involves serving seafood in a garlicky butter sauce.
To learn more about Northeast Florida’s Gullah Geechee heritage, here’re a few sites worth the visit: