Saving Sandy Island
Early every weekday morning, a fleet of small motorboats launches from the Mount Arena landing on Sandy Island, taking residents to work along South Carolina’s Grand Strand. The children board the school boat, the Prince Washington, for the daily trip to mainland schools. However, residents do not seem to mind that there are no roads on or off the island. In fact, they fought to keep it this way.
"Saving Sandy Island" takes a multi-faceted look at the sensitive issue of environmental development along this stretch of South Carolina’s coastline. A year in the making, this program explores the complex issues surrounding the threat of development to Sandy Island, the residents and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Perspectives from all the main players in the debate – from the residents who are descended from freed slaves, to the environmentalists, to the developers themselves – are offered during this unflinching look.
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Geography and a harsh chapter of history created distinctive Gullah communities on the islands along the coast of South Carolina. The cotton plantations of the Sea Islands were home to hundreds of enslaved Africans, many of whom stayed on after Emancipation. Isolated for more than a hundred years, the Gullah were a land-based people who depended upon the natural resources of the islands for their livelihood. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century development began to displace these historic villages, wreaking profound changes along the coast; all up and down the shoreline black settlements have given way to gated compounds, and golf courses have replaced forests and wetlands. Land and culture, once nearly inseparable, have been wrenched apart.
But there is one place on South Carolina’s coast where a group of African Americans teamed up with environmentalists, fought back and won the fight to save their community – Sandy Island. Situated in the Waccamaw River just a few miles from the tourist Mecca of Myrtle Beach, Sandy Island is the largest undeveloped freshwater island on the east coast. Accessible only by boat, it is home to endangered species of plants and animals. Its Gullah community was founded by a freedman, a former rice plantation slave; many of his descendants still live on the island and the school boat – the only one of its kind in the state – is named for his great-grandson.
In 1996 the majority owners of Sandy Island began seeking a permit to build a bridge, ostensibly for hauling timber off the island; but as word of the application for a bridge permit got out, it raised fears of development among local conservationists. The residents of the island, on the other hand, thought it sounded like a good idea – until they talked with cultural preservationists from the Penn Center, located near Hilton Head Island. The Penn Center staff, knowing all too well that African American communities often disappear when developers move in, took the Sandy Islanders to Hilton Head to show them how little remains there of a once thriving black culture. From then on, the Sandy Island residents teamed up with the environmental groups to save their home.
Saving Sandy Island interweaves the dramatic narrative of the battle to preserve the island with the history of its Gullah people, and explores the intertwined nature of land and tradition. The documentary is an object lesson in the power of self-determination and collaboration between members of land-based cultures and environmentalists. It charts the creative thinking that went in to a solution that involved federal and state agencies, the Nature Conservancy, even the developers themselves. For the residents of Sandy Island, especially the youth, it provides a permanent account of a fight waged and won, and the integral part they played in its successful outcome. As Emory Campbell, retired director of the Penn Center, says in an interview, “Sandy Island is a microcosm of what we are trying to affect – people making informed decisions about their own communities.”
Writer/Producer, Betsy Newman
Associate Producer, Beryl Dakers
Principal Photography, Gaines Halford
Editor, Jeanne Bryant
Broadcast Graphics, Christine Brouwer
Narrator, Anita Singleton-Prather
Sandy Island Celebration and Aerial Footage, Peter Tarpley, SCDOT
Additional Camera, Alejandro Baez
Additional Interviews, Urica Pope
Transportation by Boat, Bill Chandler, Tom Hora and Furman Long
Grip, Lisa Holm
Archival Photographs, Bayard Wootten, 1937
Courtesy of the North Carolina Collection
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Dr. William R. Ferris
Dr. Charles Joyner
Dr. Veronica D. Gerald
Dr. Patricia C. Nichols
Instrumental Music, Steve Patnaude
“Me Dun-Dun” by the Gullah Kinfolk
From The Gullah Kinfolk Live
Matrix Media c. 2000
“Oh, When I Get ‘Dere” by the Gullah Kinfolk
From The Gullah Kinfolk Live
Matrix Media c. 2000
For Carolina Stories
Executive Producer, Amy Shumaker
Director, Sanford Adams
All the People of Sandy Island
This program is sponsored by The Humanities Council SC, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities