Sandy Island and Its Community Organizer, Phillip Washington
Today Brookgreen Gardens, the popular South Carolina tourist
attraction, includes part of a unique place called Sandy Island. Cousin Corrie
Hostess at Brookgreen Gardens, explained Sandy Island and
its Community Organizer, Phillip Washington to visitors in the 1950s as
follows . . .
The Island's Geography
Now the part of Brookgreen Gardens called Sandy Island isn’t really on the Waccamaw Neck, but it borders it.
Here in Georgetown County the Waccamaw River runs pretty much straight
from north to south parallel to the seacoast and only three or four
miles inland, until it empties into Winyah Bay off Georgetown. The
Waccamaw Neck is that strip of land between the Waccamaw River and the
Well, about a mile farther inland from of the Waccamaw River, another
river also runs north to south parallel to the Waccamaw River and also
flows into Winyah Bay near Georgetown. This is the Pee Dee River. Along
the whole length of where these two rivers run parallel to each other,
little cross-streams connect the two rivers. The Waccamaw is a little
lower than the Pee Dee so that these little cross-streams drain water
from the Pee Dee into the Waccamaw River all the way along. These two
rivers are about the same size when they enter Georgetown County, but by
the time they get to Winyah Bay the Waccamaw is huge, more than a mile
across, while the Pee Dee is pretty puny, even though the Black River
joins it just before it gets to Winyah Bay.
The cross-streams divide the swampy, sandy land between the two rivers
into islands. The biggest of these is called Sandy Island. A good
sized cross-stream called Bull Creek borders Sandy Island on its north
end and a medium sized cross-stream called Thoroughfare Creek borders it
on its south end. Of course, the Waccamaw borders it on the east side
and the Pee Dee on the west side.
Sandy Island was always prime rice growing country. In fact, nine
different rice plantations were located there, but most of the planters
who owned them lived on the Waccamaw Neck or in Georgetown or
Charleston. Sandy Island was isolated even in those days. Most of the
slaves on Sandy Island were descendants of Africans who had been brought
over in the 1700s. Very few slaves left Sandy Island and very few came
from the outside in later years. The
Gullah language and culture
developed among the slaves there until Gullah came to be the primary
language spoken on Sandy Island, as on many plantations in the Lowcountry.
Phillip Washington, Community Organizer
Phillip Washington was the head slave, the driver, on Pipe Down Plantation, one of
the nine plantations on Sandy Island in the 1850s. He was intelligent
and better educated than many of the other slaves. He was also well
spoken and a leader respected by both his fellow slaves and by the white
(Read Cousin Corrie's story about how Phillip Washington and the Slaves
of Sandy Island recruited a new Master.)
The War caused disruptions on Sandy Island as elsewhere, but very few
of the slaves, or later, the former slaves, left their homes there.
Phillip Washington was one of the few who did. Although he was reluctant
to leave his family and the home he loved, he was eager to explore the
new opportunities open to him as a free man. He moved to Georgetown
where Federal occupation in the years following the War allowed former
slaves possibilities for advancement in business and politics. Phillip
Washington became quite successful in business and even purchased a home
on Front Street in the wealthiest section of Georgetown.
Racial tensions ran high however, and when the occupying Federal forces
finally left in 1877, whites regained their former power. They moved
rapidly to undo the opportunities former slaves had enjoyed during the
previous ten years.
Phillip Washington quickly recognized the changing political and
economic realities. He realized that he and others like him could no
longer prosper in white society, but he soon hit upon an alternative
plan. He determined to found an independent, self sufficient community
of former slaves back on his beloved Sandy Island.
Washington sold his house in Georgetown and moved back to Sandy
Island, where he began establishing his community. First of all he
purchased a few acres of Mont Arena land and organized the residents
there to build a church, which soon became the spiritual and political
center of the community. It remains so today. Next he rented neighboring
abandoned rice fields from the struggling absentee planters and hired
out of work former slaves to raise a rice crop. Fortunately the harvest
Phillip Washington used the profits from that rice crop and the rest of
the proceeds from the sale of his house in Georgetown to purchase all of
Mont Arena Plantation. With this as its base, his community of organized
and resourceful former slaves on Sandy Island continued to thrive and
prosper growing rice, even after Washington died around the turn
of the century.
Early in the Twentieth Century, wealthy Yankees began buying up former
plantations for hunting preserves, including the other plantations on
Sandy Island. After some negotiations, the new Northern owners agreed to
let the Sandy Islanders raise rice on their portions of Sandy Island
without paying rent. It was good for the duck hunting.
For decades after Freedom the Sandy Islanders maintained an isolated and
independent community. They raised their own food and sold or traded
rice for other necessities. The people of Sandy Island also preserved
their Gullah culture and language like almost no other community. They
kept their own customs and beliefs as well as their Gullah language long
into the Twentieth Century.
Sandy Island remains isolated to this day. There are still alligators
there and strange plants like the insect-eating Venus Flytrap. Rare
little Red-cockaded Woodpeckers still nest in hollows of ancient long
leaf pines. Some even say huge red headed Ivory billed Woodpeckers still
live there, although they are extinct most places. No white people have
lived on Sandy Island, I imagine, since the last Heriot family members
left shortly after the War.
No roads ever connected Sandy Island to anyplace, and they still don’t.
The only way to get to Sandy Island is by boat.
Prince Washington, grandson of Phillip Washington, has become a
community leader and is encouraging some modernization however. School children ride a
ferry across the river to come to school here on the mainland. Many of
the adults commute off the island to day jobs here at Brookgreen Gardens
or Pawley’s Island or even at Myrtle Beach, especially as the tourist
industry has grown.
But Sandy Island, and the community Phillip Washington created continue
to hold a unique place in our Lowcountry culture.
To learn more about Brookgreen Gardens, Sandy Island, and the South
Carolina Lowcountry's history and culture . . .
Buy the complete
(single copies or in bulk) of Lynn Michelsohn's
Tales from Brookgreen
Gardens, Folklore, Ghost Stories, and Gullah
Folktales in the South Carolina Lowcountry
also $9.99 on
(readable on iPad, iPhone, PC,
Mac, Blackberry, Android, etc.)
and available from other online booksellers, your local bookstore,
These charming stories interweave ghostly legends, local reminiscences, and
Gullah folktales with factual information about the history, geography, and
people of the South Carolina Lowcountry around Brookgreen Gardens, near Myrtle
Beach . . . an entertaining and informative addition to your visit to this unique area.
Shorter selections from Tales from Brookgreen are also available
as ebooks . . .
Crab Boy's Ghost and Other Gullah Folktales.
Stories of Alice Flagg, Confederate Blockade Runners, and Haunted Beads
Stories and Folktales from Brookgreen Gardens in the South Carolina Lowcountry
with Notes on Gullah Culture and History
© Cleanan Press, Inc. 2004-2011
All rights reserved.