The Sea Islands make up more than half of the South Carolina coastline, separated from the mainland by estuaries and marshes. These islands are home to black communities descended from slaves, who were brought to the Carolina's during the 18th century. When they were freed by the Union army in 1865, the slaves were granted land here. They are known as Gullah people, having maintained their dialect of an English-based tongue heavily influenced by several different African languages, and much of their culture has also been preserved. During the colonial period, at the height of the rice culture, slaves from West African rice kingdoms were in high demand among the plantation owners, teaching their masters how to plant, grow and cook rice, and those with basket-weaving skills were highly prized.
Today traces of their heritage survives in the handmade sweet-grass baskets, the food and in the songs performed by groups like the Sea Island Singers who sing plantation melodies at concerts in Charleston and Beaufort. St Helena is the least spoiled of the islands with beautiful landscapes and is home to small shrimp and oyster fishing communities. The Penn Center is the unofficial Gullah headquarters, preserving their unique culture and creating opportunities for the previously disadvantaged Gullahs. There is also a school started for freed slaves by a black Massachusetts teacher, and a museum displaying pictures and an assortment of old farming and fishing tools.