May 7, 2023—I recently had the pleasure and privilege of leading Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Access (EDI&A) workshops for several months in Hilton Head, South Carolina, where I had the honor of meeting Dr. Louise Miller Cohen. She is the Founder and Executive Director of the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island, which is dedicated to maintaining the customs, traditions, language, stories, songs and history of the Gullah people and the island.
The Gullah Geechee people are descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought to work on the rice, indigo and cotton plantations located on the lower Atlantic coast. Due to their enslavement on an isolated island and at coastal plantations, the Gullah Geechee people were able to retain many aspects of their indigenous West African culture, including distinctive arts, crafts, foods, music, and language.
Researchers have determined that the Gullah Geechee language began as a simplified form of communication among people—European slave traders, slave owners, and the diverse ethnic groups of African slaves—who spoke a wide variety of languages. According to the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, it is the only distinctly African creole language spoken in the United States, and it has influenced Southern vocabulary and speech patterns.
According to the book, Gullah Days, Hilton Head Island was one of the first areas liberated by Union troops after Fort Sumter. With the departure of the plantation owners following the Civil War, the formerly enslaved Gullah people became the first black-governed community in the South, complete with a police force. After emancipation in 1863, they set up a democratic structure that included campaigning for office and voting. The community remained secluded through the 1950s, when real estate development connected Hilton Head Island to the mainland with a bridge.
Dr. Cohen is able to trace her family’s roots to the 1800s and has maintained her family’s property, which her great grandfather purchased soon after the Civil War. She grew up seated at the feet of Gullah relatives, listening to the stories and learning the unique language, along with many of its dialects.
A vivacious and passionate 80-year-old, Dr. Cohen vividly remembers life on Hilton Head Island “before the bridge.” When she established the museum on her family estate in 2003, she was acutely aware that there was no real public voice representing Hilton Head’s Gullah community. Since that time, she has been working with other Gullah artists and advocates, to ensure that visitors to the Sea Islands have the chance to learn about the indigenous coastal culture.
Dr. Cohen is a mother of four and a grandmother of five. She has a grand vision for expanding the museum, which will impact generations to come. In addition, she is focusing her efforts on youth and is running a summer enrichment camp to teach them Gullah history and culture.
I so enjoyed spending time with Dr. Cohen during the EDI&A workshops! She always shared a bit of wisdom, and she provided me with a personal tour of the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island. I am deeply inspired by her work and her dedication to retain the Gullah history and culture through her family’s legacy, offering access for all Americans to learn about the vast and rich contributions of the Gullah Geechee community.