Hilton Head Island’s subtropical climate means that winter temperatures rarely fall below 64°F. In fact, the ideal weather year-round makes for an excellent destination to trade in bare branches and bleak winter scenery for a soak in the sunshine. At once brighter, deeper and more soulful than many may realize, it’s also home to centuries of history and a vibrant cultural scene that rivals that of many larger cities. Read on to explore the fascinating history and unparalleled arts community that make this southern gem feel like paradise.
The island’s history dates back many centuries, with its earliest known inhabitants—the Escamacu Indians—occupying the land as many as 4,000 years ago. In the time since, many other cultures have set foot on its pristine beaches, including English, Spanish and French colonists, African Americans of various descent, and even pirates and explorers under the banner of many diverse flags.
In November 1861, the Civil War finally reached Hilton Head Island when a campaign of more than 12,000 Union soldiers landed on its shores. Within just five hours, the island fell into the hands of Federal troops, and as a result, many of the island’s plantation families fled. This proved to be a watershed moment in the history of Hilton Head Island and its people.
Of particular note, in September of 1862, then-commanding General Ormsby Mitchel assumed control over Hilton Head Island. He was distressed to find the plantations’ formerly enslaved people still living there in deplorable conditions. To remedy this, he provided land—including some from former plantation owners—to the formerly enslaved African Americans, known today as the Gullah people.
This land would ultimately become Mitchelville, the first self-governing town of the formerly enslaved in this region. So successful was the effort, and so tenacious were these people, that a small population of the Gullah community has remained in place ever since. Their perseverance was evident from the beginning, and their creative spirit continues to influence the island’s culture to this day.
Gullah Culture and Arts Tours
To understand the remarkable resilience of the Gullah people, it’s helpful to first understand their origins. By the mid-18th century, thousands of enslaved Africans had managed to survive the often-deadly Middle Passage and had reached various destinations along the shores of the Atlantic. Given the literal isolation of the area at the time, many of these people were able to preserve their original traditions, along with some aspects of language that would become known as the Gullah-Geechee dialect—a regional version of English-based Creole.
Through an intersection of political, social and historical circumstances, the Gullah created their own culture—a fertile way of life that’s evident in their language, foods, music, trades and skills, as well as their enduring affinity for art. Though they are a culture born of unthinkable heartache, the Gullah were saved through their own sheer perseverance, and as a result, their culture has not only survived, but it flourishes on Hilton Head Island.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact that the budding town of Mitchelville had on shaping Gullah culture. From its very start, the formerly enslaved people set about building their own community, by their own rules. They created a system of self-government including elections for their own leaders and officials, and they developed a functioning economy with education at its heart.
It’s said that Harriet Tubman herself, the American abolitionist and fearless leader of the Underground Railroad, once visited Mitchelville in person, having heard of the significant strides that the Gullah people had made in building their new community. To Tubman and to many of the newly freed people across the nation, Mitchelville was a true inspiration, and word of its existence began to spread far and wide. It represented resilience and hope, and perhaps more importantly, it demonstrated that all men really were created equal here, at last.
Visitors today can still experience the inspiration of Mitchelville up close. Situated on the North end of Hilton Head Island, its roads give way to wooded trails and peaceful wetlands, a modern enclave blending in harmoniously with its natural surroundings. Among the must-visit spots, Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park marks the precise location where America’s first self-governing community of formerly enslaved people took up the mantle to create their own free community.
One of the best ways to experience the Gullah culture is with a guided tour with Gullah Heritage Trail Tours. As a native Gullah family-owned business that was founded in 1966, the tour group will take you inside some of the most historic neighborhoods. Today, the group continues to preserve the Gullah culture, and works to infuse Gullah cultural values into the broader Lowcountry.
Here, you can learn from the past by walking the very grounds where significant historical milestones took place. Tour the Gullah Family Compounds, visit the Old Debarkation Point, see where generations of young minds have been shaped at the old one-room Schoolhouse, wander through the Tabby Ruins, and visit the First Freedom Village Historic Marker. With a staff of tour guides that is entirely of Gullah heritage—born and raised right on Hilton Head Island—you will experience the island’s history in the company of its very descendants. Tours begin at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn.
Inside this Little Blue House is the birthplace of the Gullah Museum, an important marker of Gullah cultural heritage. Founded in 2003 by Dr. Louise Miller Cohen, a native of Hilton Head Island herself, this 501(c)(3) charitable foundation is dedicated to maintaining Gullah customs, traditions, language, stories, songs and structures on the island, with the Museum being a catalyst for visitors and locals to deepen their understanding of the Gullah people and their influence. While there, take a basket sewing class or listen to masterful stories of the past told by Cohen herself.
Gullah culture permeates Hilton Head Island’s broader artistic community, impacting the area's overall art and design sensibility. While visiting Hilton Head Island, guests can explore centuries-old Gullah traditions right alongside the works of more contemporary artists, whose own art reveals tangible influences from the Gullah over many generations.
Local Gullah artists create and share their art today, and many of their most powerful works are on view at galleries and museums across the island. And for those who want a more hands-on experience with Hilton Head Island’s arts and cultural scene, sign up for a basket sewing class (they’re offered regularly) and create your own sweetgrass basket to take home, offered at Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn.
Visual Arts and Galleries
Art lovers and appreciators who visit Hilton Head Island will be spoiled for choice with so many superlative galleries and public arts venues to explore. The Hilton Head Island Cultural Trail is a favorite place to start, as it guides guests on a sensory tour of the island’s rich heritage and contemporary arts scene with many popular works on view. Poetry lovers, too, will delight in the upcoming Poetry Trail—an interactive, self-guided walking tour that takes visitors along a route showcasing poetry authored by Hilton Head Island poets. Beginning at Rollers Wine & Spirits, follow numbered signs along the trail and scan QR codes to explore the town and reveal each stop's poem.
When it comes to the visual arts in particular, it’s hard to beat the Art League of Hilton Head Gallery, with over 170 member artists displaying works in its more-than-2000-square-foot gallery space. There’s also the lovely Camellia Art gallery, with its diverse collection of Impressionist-style oil paintings, bronze sculptures and other abstract art.
Visitors can also try their hand at making their own works of art. At Art Cafe, the paint-your-own pottery studio also features tasty bites from restaurant partner, Rockfish. And at the Art League of Hilton Head Academy, visitors can choose from over 30 different art classes and workshops. With a schedule that changes quarterly, taught by professional art teachers, it’s easy to explore various art methods and techniques throughout the year, from mixed media and printmaking to oil painting and life drawing.
As the beating heart of the island’s performance arts scene, the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina offers a remarkable, award-winning showcase of professional performing arts. Visitors can experience Broadway-caliber shows, cultural festivals, concerts and more. The 349-seat main stage is home to larger performances, while a smaller black box venue offers youth and experimental theater.
Among the many opportunities to experience the sounds of the island, the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra performs headline events, notably at Pops in the Park each spring—an outdoor concert at Lowcountry Celebration Park that has become an annual favorite for many. Other festivals in the area include the annual Crescendo Celebration. The month-long event takes place each fall, offering visitors an array of attractions from live outdoor music and storytelling to rousing dance performances by local and visiting troupes, an enchanting lantern parade, film screenings, and more.
There’s also the Hilton Head Choral Society, which hosts four major concerts throughout each calendar year. Founded in 1975, the society features 150 singers who perform an expansive repertoire that includes both classical and contemporary musical arrangements. And at The Jazz Corner, the island’s premier jazz club, visitors can experience smooth and elegant jazz performances and gourmet dining, all within an intimate environment.
Beyond the many concert opportunities across the island, Hilton Head Island is also home to a thriving theater and dance community. At the Main Stage Community Theatre, the community-based troupe includes local children and their parents who put on up to four full-scale shows per year. For a decidedly edgier performance, the Lean Ensemble Theater puts on shows designed to push boundaries and leave their audiences thinking for long after the curtain falls. And at Hilton Head Dance Theatre, nearly 300 students train with renowned instructors each year—some hailing from such prestigious companies as the American Ballet Theatre—in order to put on dazzling performances of contemporary and classical dance each year.
Come spring, music lovers are in for a treat with the Hilton Head International Piano Competition. Twenty young pianists from around the world, selected for their artistic excellence, are invited to compete and showcase their talent. The event includes a number of live performances by world-renowned artists, master classes for the young pianists, and mentorship opportunities.
Museums and Libraries
Beyond the visual and performing arts, Hilton Head Island is also home to a collection of organizations designed to celebrate its natural history and coastal biodiversity. The renowned Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn (a Smithsonian Affiliate) packs an incredible range of exhibits into its 2,000-square-foot interior space, along with 68 acres that allow for outdoor exploration. It's also the starting point for Gullah Heritage Trail Tours. The museum is dedicated to preservation and education, and is a celebration of all of the unique natural factors that make Hilton Head Island such a singular destination. While there, deepen your knowledge of Gullah culture with a historic sites tour.
Start at Discovery House, a structure built in 1859 and home to the museum’s permanent exhibits. After this orientation, take your choice of guided tours, which include birding, underwater exploration, dolphin spotting, or even kayaking through the natural marshland. Smithsonian Affiliate museums, such as this one, partner with the Smithsonian Institution, strengthening connections across cultural institutions and communities, with the goal of ultimately inspiring a deeper understanding of our world.
Arts, Culture & History Festivals
Each year, the Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration showcases the rich cultural heritage of the Gullah people through a wide range of activities, including food and music, sharing historical information, and visual art. The next celebration will take place between January 30th and March 1st, 2024, starting with the Arts Ob We People Art Exhibition and Sale on January 1st. The exhibition provides emerging and leading Gullah artists with a platform to showcase their work and is the perfect opportunity to bring home a lasting artistic memento. Other noteworthy art shows include the Gullah Geechee Legacies, which also begins on January 1st and focuses on Gullah spirituality, and the Patrons & Friends Art Show, which takes place on February 7th. To begin the month-long celebration on the right foot, fuel up at the Ol’ Fashioned Gullah Breakfast on February 3rd; traditional homemade jams, sauces, and jellies, along with other must-have comfort foods, like grits and biscuits, will provide a hearty start. Gullah Friday Night Gospel Concerts are a can’t-miss component of the festival with a live choir singing breathtaking tunes every Friday night in February. In partnership with the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, the annual Taste of Gullah celebration on February 10th spotlights the mouthwatering flavors that characterize Gullah cuisine; after filling up on seasoned-to-perfection staples, participate in a Gullah-inspired cultural demonstration. For a full list of the months programming, check out the Gullah Celebration’s website.
In June, Hilton Head Island commemorates its African American history with a Juneteenth Celebration at Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park. The date, now recognized as a federal holiday, marks the 1865 announcement by Union Army General Gordon Granger, proclaiming freedom for enslaved people in Texas—the last state where slavery remained institutionalized. To join in, enjoy live bands, local vendors, and delicious food among other celebratory traditions, like reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.
And at the Heritage Library Foundation, a non-profit member library, visitors and locals can both benefit from the organization’s commitment to documenting Hilton Head Island’s history—from the island’s earliest discovery to the development years of the 1950s and even today. The library also offers services in ancestry research, helping residents to trace their roots and understand their own place in Hilton Head Island’s history—as well as its future.
In any season, Hilton Head Island offers an inviting climate to explore its rich history and unrivaled arts community. From its unique Gullah heritage and culture to a robust calendar of arts and culture events, there is truly something for everyone to explore on a visit here.