Explore Gullah culture on paper, land, and water

A fascinating book just crossed my desk — “Gullah Culture in America,” by Wilbur Cross. Just out from John F. Blair Publisher, the book delves into the past and present of the Gullah people, descendants of African ethnic groups who were brought to America as early as the late 17th century and were forced to work on plantations in South Carolina and later Georgia.

I’ve written about the Gullahs before. Lina and I visited several Gullah spots in coastal South Carolina in 2007. The two most fascinating were the Penn Center in Beaufort, which works to preserve and document the Gullah and Geechee cultures, and Sandy Island,  inhabited by Gullah people and reached only by boat. We kayaked in, and the story I wrote for the Boston Globe about that little adventure is below.

The National Park Service is working on a Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. The website isn’t updated, but I know there has been slow progress on this project. Some day the important Gullah stops between coastal southern North Carolina, where the corridor begins, and northern Florida, will be well marked and open for business. I can’t wait!

According to author Cross, today, more than 300,000 Gullah people live in the remote areas of the SC and GA sea islands of St. Helena, Edisto, Coosaw, Ossabaw, Sapelo, Daufuske, and Cumberland, their way of life endangered by overdevelopment in an increasingly popular tourist destination.

Here’s my Globe story, which ran July 22, 2007.

PRECIOUS AND PRESERVED: A Gullah community, undeveloped land, freshwater wildlife – all just miles from busy Myrtle Beach, SC

SANDY ISLAND – After a day of cavorting around this beautiful, undeveloped freshwater island, we wondered if our final stop would bring a happy ending or a hostile one. It was hard to imagine the latter, but we had been forewarned.

Water plants in shallow waters of the Waccamaw River near Sandy Island

We had rented kayaks to reach Sandy Island because there is no bridge or ferry service to this 12,000-acre swath of land between the Waccamaw and Great Pee Dee rivers 15 miles south of Myrtle Beach. The day so far had been blissful. With the occasional flying fish keeping us company, we had paddled past wetlands sprouting dancing grasses and the knobby knees of cypress and tupelo trees. On land, in the Nature Conservancy preserve, trails of white sand canopied by stately oaks and Spanish moss took us through stands of longleaf pines. Now, for our final stop, we steered our bright blue and red kayaks back up the Waccamaw on the island’s east side and over to the Sandy Island public boat landing.

To the right of where we landed was a dock holding a few small boats, as well as the Tours de Sandy Island pontoon boat, and the Prince Washington, the “school boat” that ferries local children across the river, where a bus waits to transport them to mainland schools. Many islanders shuttle to work, using jon boats to reach their cars parked at the mainland launch, some 10 minutes away along a canal that is lined with street lights for nighttime boating. Our destination, just a few feet up from the shore on the left, was the island’s only business, Pyatt’s General Store, housed in a small yellow frame building with a front porch.

According to Georgetown County officials, Sandy Island has about 75 full-time residents, and some 25 others who return home on weekends. They’re Gullahs, African-Americans who are descendants of slaves brought here from West Africa to work on the coastal rice plantations. An estimated quarter million Gullahs live among the sea islands and on the coastal plains between Wilmington, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla. Some still speak the English-based Creole language called Gullah.

Stepping out of our kayaks, we glanced around nervously, relieved that no one was in sight, as we were doing what most everyone had warned us not to do: stopping at the community’s boat landing.

“Sandy Island isn’t really a tourist destination,” a South Carolina State Parks spokesman told me. The man who rented us our kayaks said, “I would avoid that landing. The local custom is we leave them alone.”

And a historian who is writing a book about Gullah people issued this warning: “You’re not going to the inhabited part, are you? I wouldn’t do that. I heard someone complain about kayakers.”

I wanted to be respectful, but I was also skeptical that our presence would be so unwelcome. We had traded friendly nods with a few locals on the water, and all we wanted to do was check out the store. We knew the dirt roads leading to homes were private property.

“I get calls from people wanting to go there all the time,” said Bill Unger, owner of Black River Outdoors Center in Georgetown. “People think you’re going to see women sitting around in old dresses weaving straw baskets. They read about the Gullah and think Sandy Island is going to be a museum. It’s just not the way it is. They have houses, cars, satellite dishes.”

Sandy Island landing on right with Pyatt’s General Store on left

While Sandy Island may not be a recognized tourist destination, it appears that more folks are going to be visiting. For one thing, the island’s remarkable story of being saved from development is told in “Saving Sandy Island,” a 2006 documentary film produced by South Carolina Educational Television. Also last year, Congress approved $10 million for a Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor from North Carolina to Florida. And for the first time, tours of the Gullah community have become available through island native Rommy Pyatt, whose family owns the store.

We tried to sign up for a tour, but Pyatt wasn’t available when we were there. Without him, we wouldn’t have access to the church, the cemetery, or the fire station. But we could still go to the store on our own. If we dared.

Sandy Island has a fascinating history. Before the Civil War, the island was home to nine rice plantations, the crop that is synonymous with South Carolina’s wealthy past and its strong link to slavery. West Africans already familiar with rice planting and harvesting were captured and brought to the state. After the war, about 30 freed slaves on Sandy Island settled near the crumbling plantations. Gullah families now own about 300 acres here.

The biggest landowners have run lumber companies and hunting lodges, and at various times have tried to develop the island, which is about 7 miles long and 2 to 4 miles across. The most recent attempt was in the 1990s, when an effort to build a bridge was thwarted by conservationists and the Gullah community.

In a much-publicized deal, the land was sold to the state, which bought it to compensate for wetland destruction from a nearby highway project. The Nature Conservancy controls the preserved 9,164 acres and will take ownership by 2009, said Furman Long, Nature Conservancy land steward for the island. Long gave us a driving tour of the western side of the island in the pickup truck he keeps there. As we headed north along a dirt road once used for lumbering and hunting, he pointed out squat longleaf pines more than a century old.

One of the stars here is the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, and trees they’ve pecked holes in are marked with surveyor’s tape. Other wildlife includes turkeys, eagles, ospreys, deer, alligators, bears, wild pigs, and coyotes. Rare plant communities are abundant here, and Long stopped at a bog to show us a cluster of blooming carnivorous pitcher plants.

The Conservancy has put in two hiking loops on the island’s north end and plans more amenities. There are also inland “lakes” that attract up to 1,000 boaters on the weekends, Long said.

With our tour finished, we paddled the hour or so to the Sandy Island landing. Not until I reached the door to Pyatt’s General Store did I see the “closed” sign. Then my husband motioned toward a nearby house, whispering “somebody’s coming.”

The school boat Prince Washington at the Sandy Island landing

This was it, I thought. We’ll be welcomed or asked to leave.

“Hey,” said a woman with a gentle smile who turned out to be Beulah Pyatt, Rommy’s mother. “I just saw you down here,” she said, moving to unlock the door. She explained that she works at a bank on the mainland and doesn’t always keep the store open. We bought sodas and looked around at the merchandise: Sandy Island-inscribed tote bags, postcards, and even books, written by her cousin Thomas Pyatt, along with Gullah dolls and a small bit of general-store fare.

“Wow, I’m really surprised you sell tourist stuff,” I said. “Do you know how many people warned us to not even stop here?”

“They did?” Pyatt said, surprised. “What did they say?”

I told her everything I had heard.

Pyatt listened and shook her head. “Hmmm …,” she said. “Well, you can tell folks to come on by.”

So if anyone asks, tell them Beulah sent you.

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3 Responses to “Explore Gullah culture on paper, land, and water”

  1. Wilbur Cross Says:

    Thanks for your comment on my book, Gullah Culture in America, as “A Fascinating Book,” and in effect urging readers to enjoy it too. I’d also like to urge readers who have the book to take a special look at Chapter Two, “Catching the Learning. This is a brief history of Penn Center, which will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in April. Dr. Emory Campbell (who wrote the Foreword for the Gullah book) and I have co-authored a history of Penn, which will be published by the University of Georgia Press, but not until later in the year. Cheers! Wilbur Cross.

    • didaniel Says:

      Thanks, Wilbur. I agree and also I really encourage people to VISIT the Penn Center. It’s open to the public, is in a beautiful setting, steeped in history and has remarkable resources, photos, artifacts. I loved being there!

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