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Sandy Island: A community and historical legacy

by Crandell

Photos by Haley Yarborough

Everything is quiet at the landing at the end of Sandy Island Road. The soft thump of an aluminum boat hull tapping the landing dock punctuates the silence. Three students and one faculty member from Coastal Carolina University’s Athenaeum Press listen for a pontoon boat’s motor to signal the time to gather up their cameras and notebooks before heading over to Sandy Island, one of the last South Carolina island communities accessible only by boat.

The pontoon belongs to Charles Pyatt, a community leader on Sandy Island who has helped sponsor the CCU team’s project. Pyatt and most of the Sandy Island residents are direct descendants of the slaves who worked the rice fields along the Waccamaw Neck. The island’s population has dwindled from 350 in the 1930s to just under 60, and many of those residents are quickly aging. CCU has partnered with the Sandy Island community for a two-phase project to document and preserve the island’s culture and legacy, made possible by a $104,000 Civil Rights Grant from the National Park Service.

The first phase of the project is to create a virtual reality film and book about the significant history and resilience of the Sandy Island community, titled At Low Tide. The visual team includes Madia Walker and Jesse Lindler, graphic design majors, and the writing and researching team includes Shonte Clement, a digital culture and design major; Quentin Ameris, an education major; Jose Rangel, a music major; and Ronda Taylor and Maggie Nichols, students in CCU’s Master of Arts in Writing program.

Eric Crawford, CCU assistant professor of music, serves as the team’s faculty mentor. He first worked with The Athenaeum Press, CCU’s publishing lab, on a CD project about Gullah spirituals on St. Helena Island called Gullah: The Voice of an Island. Since arriving at CCU, Crawford has spent two years building relationships with individuals on Sandy Island, and the press actively invites community members into the production process.

Angelis Washington is one of those community members. A retired schoolteacher, she was born and raised on Sandy Island. Washington regularly attends Athenaeum Press meetings on the CCU campus, providing insight to the island’s culture and assisting with the planning and implementation of the project.

In becoming familiar with the island and its people, the CCU team found that few residents had their own computers. Working with several departments on campus and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, the press developed a computer literacy course and installed a small computer lab in the island’s school building, built in 1932.

After working on the project for several months, Crawford still felt more could be done. Then he learned of a new federal grant program designed to preserve the history of the American civil rights movement.

“At first, Sandy Island and civil rights didn’t obviously go together,” Crawford said, but after conducting research, he discovered that because Sandy Islanders were landowners, they had formed a powerful voting block in Georgetown during the 1880s. This discovery, paired with the legacy of community members like Prince Washington (1895-1975) who advocated for access to education and utilities, helped the application succeed. Crawford was thrilled to see the islanders’ reactions to their history being recognized, “not only for Georgetown County... but on a national level.”

Over the summer and fall of 2017, Gillian Richards-Greaves and David Palmer, CCU assistant professors in the anthropology and geography department, will join Crawford and the press staff to begin the second phase of the grant project: conversion of the 1932 Sandy Island schoolhouse into an interactive learning center where visitors and community members of all ages can learn more about Sandy Island’s history. The group will also work to place the historic buildings on the island in the National Register of Historic Places.

The group hopes to debut the plans at the Sandy Island homecoming in August 2017.

“We see this as the first step,” Crawford said. “We hope that the work that CCU is doing will help bring other resources to the island and show how central Sandy Island is in learning about the history of this region – from rice culture to civil rights.”

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