Gullah Community & Oyster Industry in North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands

Photo by Captured by Kaitlin Rose
Art by Diane Britton Dunham

Gullah Community & Oyster Industry in North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands

Navassa and Eagle Island in North Carolina are currently home to a hidden heritage that has impacted the region for centuries. The Gullah community has had a huge impact on the culture around the islands. The Gullah-Geechee people are descendants of West African slaves that were brought to America to maintain rice plantations and other farms along the coast. The term “Gullah” was established to identify the English spoken by the Gullah and Geechee people but is now used to refer to the creole language and ethnic identity of the Gullah people. The Gullah/Geechee are the only speakers of African American creole in the United States. Their creole language combines English and over 30 African dialects. 

Courtesy of NC’s Brunswick Islands

The Gullah influence has remained apparent in the food, crafts and language of the residing people because many people of Gullah heritage have remained along this region where they feel a sense of community. Although many people did not know of their ancestry until recently, the community has come together to preserve the culture of their people. In 2006, Congress established a “corridor” that extends from North Carolina to Florida in order to preserve the heritage, artifacts, and historical sites of the Gullah-Geechee people. Although many of the heritage efforts are together for the Gullah and Geechee community, generally the Gullah people reside in North and South Carolina, while Geechee people live in Georgia and Florida. The former Mayor of Navassa was active in the development of the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The Reaves Chapel in Navassa, originally a place of worship for former slaves after the civil war, is now used as a small library and Gullah-Geechee resource center to honor their culture. In order to preserve the nation, The Gullah-Geechee community is celebrated the week of July 30th in North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands. 

Oyster Industry

North Carolina is currently known as the “Napa Valley” of oysters. This is in part because of the prime harvesting conditions in the region. There are currently 16 different types of oysters that originate from North Carolina. The oyster harvest has been an important source of food in coastal areas since before recorded history. The oyster industry currently contributes over 4 million dollars yearly to North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands. In 2018, over 119,000 bushels of oysters were harvested, including wild and farm raised. 

The history of oysters dates back centuries and has always had a significant impact on coastal North Carolina’s economy. In 1822, North Carolina passed legislation allowing for the harvesting of Oysters. After the Civil War, state officials turned to oysters to help rebuild the economy because of the large consumption. The oyster industry bloomed again in North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands when Carson Varman, a man born and raised in NC’s Brunswick Islands, started his own home-based business. The business operated on a wholesale and retail basis of clams and oysters coming from the waters of North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands. After Varman became profitable, the people caught on and the industry bloomed significantly. Oyster’s are so important to coastal North Carolina, that in the 1970’s, oysters were the most valuable kind of shellfishery in the state. 

Today in North Carolina, farmers use a floating cage system to grow oysters. The cage needs to float close to the surface of the water for the oysters to grow in the warmest temperature and best quality water. Hatcheries are now able to produce fast growing oysters and keeping them in the contained environment of the cage allows them to be protected against predators and have a more consistent crop. The oyster season in North Carolina begins when cold weather returns. The season then runs through mid-May. For individuals to catch oysters, they should go looking during low tide at a time with weak winds. You will need a hammer with a straight claw to break away the barnacles and other oysters from the clusters. When harvesting, wear gloves and run your fingers down into the mud to pull the oysters sideways and out. 

The state of North Carolina has taken many steps to protect the oyster habitat in the region. This is because of the many benefits oysters have on the economy and the environment. Oysters are good for the environment due to their filtration system which clean sediment, algae and pollutants from the water. Oyster reefs also provide a natural barrier to tidal changes, rising sea levels, and erosion. The reefs also provide an optimal environment for aquatic life.

October begins the oyster season in North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands, and there is no better way to celebrate this magnificent mollusk than the 39th Annual North Carolina Oyster Festival taking place in Ocean Isle Beach on October 19-20, 2019! Travelers can accompany over 30,000 attendees for oysters galore as local restaurants line the streets for this two-day festival. The festival features arts and craft vendors and live performances from exceptional entertainers from genres including beach, funk, country and more. 

The fun doesn’t stop there, attendees can participate in thrilling contests like the Oyster Eating Contest, the Oyster Shucking Contest, or the Oyster Stew Cook-off where attendees can sample treats from some of the best local restaurants. Admission for the festival is free for Children 12 and under and $5 cash only for adults. Travelers to NC’s Brunswick Islands can watch as Ocean Isle Beach transforms into oyster heaven with help of local businesses and the Brunswick County Chamber of Commerce.


Michiel Perry

Michiel is a Black Southern Belle living a lowcountry life. I love all things fashion, home decor and southern! When I am not running around doing fun stuff for Black Southern Belle, I live in antique stores and have a minor obsession with historic homes 🙂

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