After slavery ended, Africans and indigenous Americans who fostered a unique language and culture known as Gullah-Geechee did not disband.
Many remained on the Sea Islands in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, cultivating rice, speaking Gullah and weaving sweetgrass baskets.
More than 150 years later, the Gullah-Geechee Nation still exists, and an annual 10-day festival in honor of the nation kicks off Saturday. The festival, which runs through Aug. 5, encompasses the coastline from Wilmington, N.C., to St. Augustine, Fla.
These events give members of the nation time to show their pride in being Gullah-Geechee and teach outsiders about their traditions and culture, said Marquetta Goodwine, elected Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation.
"For so long, there's been so much misrepresentation, including that our culture was a thing of the past, that it was only antebellum," said Goodwine, who lives in Beaufort. "We're still here. People can still find us."
Festival events honoring the Gullah-Geechee Nation will unfold across the Southeast coastal region. They include DNA testing for people of African descent, drum circles and beach days. Traditional food will be served at many events.
Researchers from Howard University will offer free DNA testing to descendants of Africans, first on Saturday at American Beach in Florida, and again on Aug. 4 at the Charleston Music Hall in Charleston.
Anyone who wants to learn more about Gullah-Geechee culture is welcome. Many events are free. More information on the festival can be found online at gullahgeecheenation.com.
Members of the nation are encouraged to wear traditional clothing and to bring drums when appropriate.
The Gullah-Geechee Nation includes thousands of people of African and indigenous American-descent who live along the Southeastern coastline, from North Carolina to Jacksonville, Fla. The annual event began in Charleston in 2012 and has since grown to include all South Carolina coastal counties with the exception of Horry.
That counties and cities across the Southeast want to celebrate the nation is a welcome change, Goodwine said.
"It's 180 degrees away from thinking our culture is backward and ignorant and something to get rid of," she said.
In Beaufort, celebrations of Gullah-Geechee are incredibly important, Mayor Billy Keyserling said. When Africans were enslaved in the Beaufort area, they brought longstanding traditions and knowledge rooted in various African cultures.
But the city's African-American population has declined sharply since the days of slavery. During the Reconstruction era, about 80 percent of Beaufort's residents were African-American. Today, they make up about 25 percent of the population.
In addition to the county's involvement in the annual appreciation week, the city of Beaufort has an annual Memorial Day weekend festival that honors the Gullah-Geechee Nation, Keyserling said. That festival is one of the city's four annual heritage festivals.
"I say do whatever we can to keep it alive so future generations will have a better sense of where they came from," the mayor said.
Gullah-Geechee Nation was long considered a "nation within a nation" until July 2, 2000, when the group self-recognized and elected Queen Quet as their first "head pun de boddee," the head of state and official spokesperson and queen mother.
Members of the nation speak the Gullah language, which evolved during slavery as a distinct dialect that includes traces of Afro-Seminole languages.
They also make traditional "Geechee" food, wear colorful patterned clothing and celebrate occasions with African drumming.