CCU collaborates with community on Sandy Island project
Right after Brookgreen Gardens, turn right on Sandy Island Road. Pass Waccamaw Middle School, the power plant and the private roads leading into Brookgreen Gardens, populated by little more than a wild turkey. When you reach the parking lot, you can look to the landing. You might catch a glimpse of the New Prince Washington, the gleaming white school boat that doubles as the only school boat in South Carolina and a ferry for the residents of Sandy Island.
Many people know that Sandy Island is a historic African-American community; some know that the island housed more than nine rice and indigo plantations. But fewer know that the community we know today as Sandy Island was founded by a freedman, Phillip Washington, who purchased the land from his former owner to provide a space where he and his community could create a self-determined community. At its height, more than 300 people lived on the island, many of whom owned land. Now, the full-time population on the island has decreased to less than 50; most of the island’s 12,000 acres are owned by the Nature Conservancy, which protects the endangered red-cockaded wood pecker and longleaf pine trees on the island. “It’s not like it used to be,” said the Rev. George Weathers, who led the effort to protect the island from commercial development in the mid-1990s. “When I was a boy, the island was full of people.”
But every two years, the landing is full again. The biannual Sandy Island family reunion calls islanders back from California, New York, and even overseas. These are the families who trace their ancestry back to Phillip Washington’s generation or earlier.
This year, alongside the fellowship, food and music, there are two other items to celebrate: Sandy Island has won a National Park Service African American Civil Rights Preservation Grant for the Sandy Island School building, and there are stacks of the recently released project At Low Tide: Voices of Sandy Island, a book and 360 documentary produced through Coastal Carolina University.
Both efforts are collaborations between the University and Sandy Island community. Over the past two years, music professor Eric Crawford and the Athenaeum Press students began interviewing island residents about their lives and experiences on Sandy Island. The group attended church and community functions, led computer classes for residents, and crossed the Waccamaw with Charles Pyatt, a retired Army sargent who is CCU's project partner and community leader.
At Low Tide, the resulting publication, is a telling of that long history through the voices of the Sandy Island people. The student-developed publication includes a book and a Google cardboard Virtual Reality headset through which readers use their smartphones and the YouTube app to view a 360 documentary that offers a virtual tour of the island’s historic and developing spaces. The project can be viewed and purchased by visiting ccu.press/lowtide.
But this project is just the beginning. As the CCU team presented research and these stories to the island, they discovered that the island had a long history of political participation and advocacy for educational and public resources. In the 1920s, Abraham Herriott successfully petitioned Archer Huntington for a school building; Prince Washington got a meeting with the South Carolina governor for access to electricity in the 1970s. To preserve this history, Crawford and the Press partnered with community members Weathers and Pyatt and received a $104,000 African American Civil Rights Heritage grant from the National Park Service. The grant will pay for a historic preservationist to work with the community and team to investigate the condition of the Sandy Island school and develop a plan for its future use, potentially as a learning and research center. Once repairs to the school house are prioritized, renovations will begin on the building. A group of research students are also working with faculty to finish an application to include Sandy Island on the National Historic Registry. The team hopes to apply for additional funding to continue the renovation as well as repair the second building of the historic congregation of New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.
“The island has been saved,” says Crawford, “but it’s the people and culture who are endangered now.”
It’s the hope that with the updated facilities and official designation, more resources will come to Sandy Island, from school groups learning about Gullah and rice cultures to tourists interested in the deep African-American heritage of the Waccamaw Neck. Sandy Island isn’t just a place that shows our region its history; it’s a living, breathing community that is continuing the legacy of independence that Phillip Washington created so many years ago.