Education

CCU to keep Sandy Island’s rich history alive with $100K grant

Grant will help CCU preserve Sandy Island's rich African-American history

CCU was awarded an African American Civil Rights grant from the National Park Service for the Sandy Island Cultural Initiative. The grant will be used to make repairs at the former school and New Bethel Baptist Church
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CCU was awarded an African American Civil Rights grant from the National Park Service for the Sandy Island Cultural Initiative. The grant will be used to make repairs at the former school and New Bethel Baptist Church

Once a community of several hundred people, Sandy Island’s isolated population has dwindled down to between 50 and 60 at any given time.

But Coastal Carolina University is making sure the undeveloped river island’s legacy of freedom, self-governance, education and political power within its African-American population is protected.

This was a place, and this begins in the late 1880s or so, where blacks were safe. They found that they could come here and self-govern themselves.

Eric Crawford, CCU professor

Musicology professor Eric Crawford is leading the Sandy Island Cultural Initiative, which seeks to record the oral histories and memories of the island’s living and former residents who descend from slaves brought to the southeast coast in the 1700s for rice cultivation.

The material collected by students will be put into a book and a virtual reality movie. Both are backed by the school’s Athenaeum Press.

Part of my interest is ‘Can we save this community that is dwindling down?’So this grant has really been a God-send.

Eric Crawford, CCU professor

And thanks to a $104,798 African American Civil Rights Grant from the National Parks Service, the area’s history will be housed in an interactive exhibit at the island’s cultural center.

The grant is CCU’s first from the National Parks Service, and one of 39 grants totalling $7.5 million to preserve sites and stories related to civil rights.

“Part of my interest is ‘Can we save this community that is dwindling down?’” asked Crawford, who had originally planned to record songs on the island before realizing that he could do more. “So this grant has really been a God-send.”

The money will be used to refurbish the New Bethel Baptist Church and the island’s one-room 1930s-era school house, which is now the Sandy Island Cultural Center and library where older residents on the island can take tuition-free computer classes. The cultural center is now funded by a private donor.

In January of 2018, an interactive exhibit featuring oral histories, memories and artifacts will be completed in the cultural center and will pay tribute to some of the island’s earliest leaders.

Part of my interest is ‘Can we save this community that is dwindling down?’So this grant has really been a God-send.

Eric Crawford, CCU professor

One such leader was Philip Washington, a freed slave who purchased the island in 1882 from his former owner.

“This was a place, and this begins in the late 1880s or so, where blacks were safe,” said Crawford. “They found that they could come here and self-govern themselves.”

According to the group’s grant application, the island was active in politics from the mid-1880s until 1900, during which time the New Bethel Baptist church served as a voting precinct. The island community would often unanimously vote for one candidate, swinging elections in the residents’ favor.

“The history of this island, what they’ve done, hasn’t really been told,” said Crawford. “Very few people know about the voting rights power.”

Residents of the unincorporated island were able to vote and avoid poll taxes because they owned their property and in 1900, despite the church being removed as a voting precinct, elected former schoolteacher John Bolts to the South Carolina legislature.

There were no other black representatives in the legislature until 1970.

A big part of the project was not just documenting the history but helping the islanders preserve what’s here.

Quinten Ameris, CCU student

Island resident Laura Herriott, 63, has spent her entire life on the island and was interviewed for the project. She owns Wilma’s Cottage, a house built by her grandfather that was later converted into a bed and breakfast.

“I think it’s a benefit for everybody,” she said of the grant. “I think it’s something worthwhile.”

Herriott grew up on the island and said its history was worth preserving.

“It’s the most unique place around here, I think,” she said. “It’s unique because we don’t have to see nobody we don’t want to see. We don’t have to worry about nobody knocking on our doors unless we know they’re coming. It’s just peaceful. Free from everything.”

The Sandy Island Cultural Initiative hopes that the interactive exhibit will draw more people to the island, which is accessible only by boat.

“A big part of the project was not just documenting the history but helping the islanders preserve what’s here,” said Quinten Ameris, an elementary education major who did background research for the project. “Kind of bringing money back to the community so that future generations see something worth preserving.”

Ameris didn’t grow up in the area, but said the island’s African- American history is worth saving.

“This is prime real estate in a way,” he said. “You can built a resort here or you can have miss Laura’s cottage up the road.”

Christian Boschult, 843-626-0218, @TSN_Christian

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