Before the Bridge

Life on Hilton Head was simple, peaceful, family oriented and built on hard work.

Story by Luana Graves Sellars

Every day, close to 50,000 cars cross the bridge onto Hilton Head Island. In 1956, the year the first bridge to Hilton Head opened, that was the traffic for the entire year.

Today, having a connection from Hilton Head to the mainland is an afterthought, and traveling to Bluffton, Beaufort or Savannah is as easy as getting in a car and heading west over the James F. Byrnes Bridge, named for a powerful Beaufort congressman. The current four-lane span was built in 1982, replacing the original two-lane toll swing bridge.

AMERICAN GULLAH • This art by Sonja Griffin Evans depicts the unsung pioneers of South Carolina, standing in a rice field with only mere hopes of receiving their rewards in the afterlife.

But once upon a time, leaving the island wasn’t so easy. Residents relied on the limited state-operated ferry or private boats. Many Gullah families had a bateaux, a small, flat-bottomed rowboat, that they used to reach the mainland. Before the bridge, one could go days without seeing a car. Just like travel, communication with the mainland was difficult too. It wasn’t until 1958, that phone lines were brought to the island. Reliable electricity also didn’t arrive until the 1950s, according to “Bridging the Sea Islands’ Past and Present,” the third volume of Beaufort County history by Lawrence Rowland and Stephen Wise.

The island’s transportation hub was the Fish Camp, where Charlie “Mr. Transportation” Simmons launched his ferry to Savannah. Charlie’s boat, which held six cars, was what Dr. Emory Campbell described as “the lifeline between the island and the rest of the world.” Between the 1930s and the ‘50s, the day-long trip was how goods were transported back and forth to Savannah for sale. Campbell said Simmons “didn’t do it for the money, but as a service to the island.” Even developer Charles Fraser’s first trip to the island was via Simmons, as well as all of the workers who built Sea Pines, the island’s first plantation.

But long before developers set their sites on Hilton Head, it was an isolated island populated primarily by descendants of slaves. After assuming command in September 1862, Gen. Ormsby Mitchel was upset at the living conditions of the former slaves. He confiscated some land on Confederate General Thomas Fenwick Drayton’s Fish Haul Plantation, laid out streets and lots, and provided lumber for the former slaves to build their homes in a town that would be called Mitchelville. It was the first self-governing town of formerly enslaved African Americans. After the war, the freed slaves tried to grow Sea Island cotton but the boll weevil wiped out the crop.

Thus, for more than 80 years, the Gullah families survived by growing food on small farms and hunting and fishing.

The island’s isolation preserved the Gullah community’s culture, traditions and, most importantly, its language, all derived from a blend from several African countries.

The Gullah language, a combination of African dialects, allowed slaves to communicate without their owners understanding what was being said. After slavery, the language provided a sense of identity and community within the families who remained in the Lowcountry. While fading, the language is still used today.

A moment in time • A Union soldier stands with former slaves in 1862 at the plantation of Thomas F. Drayton on Hilton Head Island. Most of the people in the photograph are wearing similar clothing and accessories. Several have raw cotton stuck to their clothing. Women’s heads are covered, which was a custom imposed on female slaves.

The community supported one another. If one had, they all had. If one needed, then someone provided. They didn’t have to go far for food, nor buy it, because everything was right there.

It wasn’t until after World War II that the island garnered much attention from the outside world. A group of timbermen recognized the potential in the Island’s tall, straight pines that they called sea pines and harvested them for lumber that was put to a variety of uses.

The Lifestyle

For more than a century, the Gullah culture has endured in big and small ways, from the sweetgrass baskets to the language to the family Bibles passed from generation to generation. Gullah culture places tremendous value in its ancestors and elders; their significance and wisdom that they impart on the community is invaluable. Most of the families can trace their lineage back five, six, or even seven generations to the slaves who grew cotton and indigo on the island.

Because of that linkage to the past, acreage is more than just a lot that has value to Gullah families. It a priceless, tangible and visible reminder of the blood, sweat and tears that their ancestors experienced.

On an island that prides itself on the high price of a house with a water view, even that is a cultural difference. Gullah houses on the island, for the most part, were built near water, but not on the water. Based on weather experiences and the guidance of elders, Gullah houses were set back as protection from tides and storm surge. Gullah cemeteries, however, were placed near the water so the spirits of the dead could travel easily back to Africa.

Life on Hilton Head was simple, peaceful and family oriented, yet built on hard work. An active community, primarily on the north end of the island, shared their skills and whatever they had with each other. The island was a network of giving and organizing. “People were wonderful in how they took care of each other. Everyone was your mother,” native islander Mary Green said.

If a house needed to be built, the community came together to build it. The concept of being indebted to someone monetarily was not the expectation. Instead, assistance was given out of one’s ability to do so and out of respect.


Oystering was one of the few industries on the island. At one time, there were five oyster factories. Workers were paid $7 a gallon to wash them, open the shells and drop the shells into a hole. An average day meant six to seven gallons of oysters per person. Louis Cohen, curator of the Gullah Museum, said “my mother used the oyster knife so much that her fingerprint is in the handle.”

Most families also had a marsh tacky horse, which was used for local travel and farming. Having a marsh tacky came with significant pride in ownership. Considered one of the greatest work horses, the little horses helped plow fields and move large items. The horses also were a great source of entertainment for racing on the beach or at the annual Christmas marsh tacky race on Marshland Road.

Aw Shucks • A child is shown shucking oysters at Varn & Platt Canning Co. in Bluffton in 1913. Child labor gradually disappeared in South Carolina during the 1920s and 1930s. ©Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine

Evenings brought people together as they went from house to house with food to fellowship. Several themed social clubs on the island organized roving holiday events where they brought the party with them.

Most of the neighborhoods also had a “juke joint,” which is a Gullah word. Juke joints were gathering places where the newest music or dances could be found. During war times when Marines were based around Palmetto Dunes, a popular juke joint was Doogie’s. Most of the other island juke joints were strictly for Gullah, costing 10 cents to get in.

The island beaches, previously Gullah owned, and named after the Singleton and Burke families, also were very popular attractions on the weekend, known for having pavilions filled with music and food. The area beaches became a stop on the chitterling circuit, drawing huge crowds when performers such as Ike and Tina Turner performed at the pavilion known as Burke’s Hideaway.

The Medicine

The Gullah also maintained traditional African practices in medicine. The island had its own “medicine man,” William “Frankie” Aiken Sr., who knew how to combine certain plants to fix what ailed you. Natural remedies included peppermint oil, which gave relief from a toothache, garlic which was used to regulate blood pressure or fight an infection, and dogwood tea, which was good for a fever.

“Go get Granny” was the common phrase used when medical attention was needed. Susan “Ma Sookie” Williams and Adrianna Ford were a couple of “Grannies” who were midwives that delivered many of the island’s children. Ford dressed in her crisp uniform and carried her bag of medical supplies around the island, caring for the sick and delivering babies in the 1930s and ‘40s. There was no official doctor until the 1950s, and even then he only came to the island every couple of weeks. Hannah White “Mom” Barnwell was the island’s first registered nurse. Just like everything, medical services were bartered for with a bundle of crops, livestock or a skill.

Cherry Hill School • ©Photo by LLoyd Wainscott

The Education

Culturally, having a skill and literacy were two of the most important lessons passed down. Being able to read was once against the law, so the Gullah knew it made a significant difference in the lives of their children. Even before Emancipation, an education system was established in Mitchelville, the first self-governed town for freed slaves. They also set up a government and a retail center.

Pride in appearance and “deportment”— how one carries themselves, sits and stands — were also critical elements of their education. Before a school was built, classes were held in praise houses, churches and even dance halls. The schools were specifically constructed with windows on the east side of the building so the sun would shine over the student’s shoulder while they studied at wooden tables and benches. One-room schoolhouses were built at Honey Horn, Community Hall (Spanish Wells), Pope and Cherry Hill. The Cherry Hill School, which was built in 1937, was built after Gullah families raised money to purchase the land for the Beaufort County School District. The Cherry Hill School is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Children were expected to farm or do their chores in the early morning, go to school and complete their chores in the afternoon. Several age groups were taught within a class of between 25 to 40 students and the primary focus was to learn arithmetic, reading, writing and spelling. Each day began with the recitation of a Bible verse. Children were educated on the island up to 5th grade and then were sent off island to live with a host family to continue their education at Penn Center or in Savannah.

Notable teachers during the 1940s and ‘50s were Julia Campbell, Reginald Campbell, Dorothy Johnson and Sarah Campbell.

The Religion

NATIVE ISLANDERS • Artwork from Sonja Griffin Evans includes A New Day (top), Gullah Dream Catcher (above).

Like most of America, the church was the governing cornerstone of the island. From the beginning, the island’s Gullah churches were a central part of life for spiritual, personal direction and information. They also provided a safe haven for slaves.

Early on, pastors did not live on the island, so services were held every couple of months. When it was time for service, a bell would serve as a call to worship, which lasted all day. People wore their “Sunday best” and brought food with them to eat throughout the day. When the pastors weren’t available, worship services were held in various praise houses or homes around the island on a weekly basis. Eventually, as more churches were established, services were shared between the pastors and the location of the service would be rotated between them, a practice that continues today.    

For many years, the churches followed an ancestral African tradition called seeking. It’s a practice based in the belief that God communicated through dreams. The individual would tie a rope with knots around their head to indicate to others that they were in prayer. The individual would then spend days, and sometimes months, in the woods waiting until “you got through,” with their spiritual dream, which was a rite of passage. If person was a child who was playing around and didn’t take the process seriously, they were “turned back.” Once the dream was identified, one’s designated spiritual mother or father would interpret the dream and eventually the church leaders would challenge their beliefs. The practice of seeking persisted until the early 1970s.

After seeking, the practice of baptism by river ensured that one’s sins were taken away. Utilizing moving water is a tradition that continues today at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, where they perform baptisms along the shores of Skull Creek.

First Decoration Day by Sonja Griffin Evans
First Decoration Day by Sonja Griffin Evans

The power and influence of the church is significant to the Gullah because it was pivotal in how it structured its message. The church was the guide for how life should be lived in every aspect, from rearing a child to civic involvement and politics. The Gullah church was much more than a place for Sunday worship, it was also instrumental for discipline within the community. If an individual was found to have “done wrong” or sinned, they would be “put on the back seat” and expected to sit in the back row of the church until it was determined they had repented.

The Gullah respected and protected the island that now call home, too. Hilton Head has always been an island paradise; it began long before any bridge.

Writer Luana Graves Sellars is a community activist who spends a lot of her time advocating for issues that involve the Gullah, as well as coordinating communication between the Leadership and the Gullah community, in addition to publishing the monthly NIBCAA Native Islander newsletter. To date, she has written more than 80 articles on the island’s Gullah families and culture, and shares her Gullah knowledge and passion for the culture teaching classes for Osher Life Long Learning, as well as other speaking requests.

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