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Gullah Land

January 17, 2020

Sandy Island’s longleaf pine and turkey-foot oak forest, carpeted with fairy dots of deer moss

Julie Dash’s luminous film “Daughters of the Dust” stuck with me. I saw it when it came out in 1991 and it captured me with its beauty and unique voice. I knew instantly I wanted to visit the South Carolina sea islands and learn about Gullah culture. It took me almost 30 years to fulfill that dream.



Capt. Rommy Pyatt, Sandy Island’s official tour guide

In early December, I found myself hopping out of Gladis at the distant end of Sandy Island Road in a dirt parking lot, getting greeted by a tall, smiling man named Rommy Pyatt who was going to take me on a tour of his homeland – Sandy Island.



Pyatt’s General Store

Being the off season, it was just me and Rommy’s nephew on a pontoon boat to the island on a cool and sunny day. The trip of about a mile was up a smooth wide canal through old rice fields. After brief introductions, Rommy launched into his tour patter, filled with jokes and misdirections. Rommy is a prankster who mixes fact and fiction with glee as he tells the story of his island.


Despite being from across a continent and of different cultures and races, Rommy felt like someone from my own family, who love to tell stories filled with goofs and exaggerations. He also has a ghost story he tells, complete with photos, and the story of why the store is located where it is due to some ancestral spirits. You have to hear him tell them, because they aren’t mine to share.

Arriving on Sandy Island – at 78 feet above sea level, the highest point in Georgetown county – you see the bright yellow Pyatt’s General Store. It turns out that Rommy is related to everyone who still lives on the island, just a few dozen remaining residents.

At one time, thousands of enslaved people who worked the nearby rice plantations lived there, and the docks were a busy rice processing area, with that grain feeding Europe.

The bricks from the ship ballasts that weighted the ships on the way to America were left on the island, and some homes, including Rommy’s uncle’s tidy home that would fit into any suburb, are made from those bricks.


The church is bathed in beautiful blue light from the turquoise windows.

Rommy gave me a comprehensive tour, from showing me a little video and artifacts at the Pyatt store, to visiting the old schoolhouse and the island’s church, New Bethel Missionary Baptist. If you’re in the area, be at the Sandy Island dock at 10:30 on a Sunday and a boat will meet you to take you to worship. Rommy gave me a warm invitation, but I never made it back due to duties at my own church.


The island is covered in long-leafed pines, turkey leaf oaks, and magical beds of greyish deer moss. It’s a haven for some rare birds, including the notoriously shy red cockaded woodpecker. Many people come out to the island for day hikes. At one point, the island was threatened by a golf course development, but was purchased by the Nature Conservancy for preservation in perpetuity.

The Tour de Sandy Island is a glimpse back in time, a visit to a place unlike any other. It scratched a decades-old itch in my soul. I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to meet Capt. Rommy and see his family’s island.


One Comment
  1. January 17, 2020 08:01

    I love that deer moss ground cover. A good, genuinely funny, tour guide makes all the difference. And big bonus that he was so personable too. Great experience!

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