Hilton Head Island: Ground zero for our nation’s heritage tourism


The Lowcountry is incredibly rich in heritage and culture and has had a unique role in American history. From Charleston to Savannah, there is no doubt that this area is the historic origin of black America’s beginning. Significantly, this area can lay claim to the origins of black America because it is where newly freed slaves first became self-sufficient legal citizens of the U.S. The Port of Charleston served as the entry point for more African slaves than any other port, and as a result, in pre-Civil War days South Carolina’s black population was far greater than the population of the whites who enslaved them. The economic impact of the slave trade made South Carolina a “slave society,” but the state also is the birthplace of Reconstruction — the gateway to a post-slavery future.

CLYBURNThe South was in extreme turmoil after the Civil War, and many changes were underway that paved the way for Reconstruction. From 1865 to 1877, Southern states that had seceded were forced to operate under a reconstruction plan before being allowed to rejoin the Union. This time is an important part of America’s beginnings, and it is important to understand its impact on the nation. According to U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, “for a long time, this period of history has been ignored and is often misunderstood or misrepresented.”

Many are unaware of the significant role that the National Park Service plays in preserving American history. Among other things, the agency helps to identify sites around the country that have historical importance. To date, the National Park Service has recognized more than 30 sites nationwide that were important locations during the Civil War; however, none of them honored the importance of the Reconstruction era. Before leaving office, President Barack Obama invoked the Antiquities Act, creating a multi-site Reconstruction-era national monument in the Beaufort area. Four sites that already have been recognized as part of this initiative, including:

  • Brick Baptist ChurchThe Historic Brick Baptist Church on St. Helena Island, which was built by slaves in 1855. The slaves were restricted to the second floor of the church, where they could not be seen by their masters, and they were forced to stand during services. The Historic Brick Baptist Church is an important part of the Penn Center district, where it was the first location for black students at the Penn School. Today, the church continues to be a strong part of the St. Helena community and has an active congregation.
  • Penn CenterPenn Center’s Historic Darrah Hall is one of the oldest structures on the 50-acre campus. The Penn School, as it was formally called, was one of the first schools in the United States to provide academic training and an “industrial education” in practical trades for freed slaves. Since its creation, Penn Center has been central to the growth and development of black American history. It served as a safe haven and housing for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he stayed in the Lowcountry during the civil rights era, and it was a pivotal location for activity during that time.
  • The Emancipation Oak tree on Smith Plantation, also known as Camp Saxon, is now on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Hospital in Port Royal. This is where, on Jan. 1, 1863, Gen. Rufus Saxton chose to call an assembly for one of the earliest readings of the Emancipation Proclamation. At the time, slaves thought that if they didn’t hear the emancipation read personally at the tree, they would not be set free.
  • Beaufort’s Old Craven Street Fire Station dates back to 1874. The firehouse was central to everything that happened in local government during the Reconstruction era. The physical location of the firehouse is important, because its central location will enable visitors to walk to 70 different historic sites. Over time, Beaufort’s Old Craven Street Fire Station has become a hub for learning about the Reconstruction period.

Originally, the list also included Robert Smalls’ Beaufort home, but it is still being considered by the National Park Service for future recognition. And while historic Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island was not included Clyburn has stated that he recognizes Mitchelville’s importance to the Reconstruction story, and indicated that this is just the beginning of the process of acknowledging the historic importance of the entire Beaufort area. From his vantage point, it was most important to get the “process moving forward.”

This is “a first step in protecting and preserving the many Reconstruction-era sites in Beaufort County,” Clyburn said.

“I was pleased and extremely impressed by the overwhelmingly positive outpouring of support from local community members for the designation of a national monument,” Clyburn said during a public meeting to discuss the plans with the National Park Service. “There are so many important lessons to be learned about the Reconstruction era by the current generation and future generations.”

The public celebration and dedication of the national monument will be held at Penn Center on March 18. Plans for each of the locations are being developed by the National Park Service to establish their future use.  


Beaufort County has the most concentrated area of historical reconstruction sites in the South. For that reason, efforts to establish national recognition for Beaufort and the surrounding area has been a three-year project for Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, who has been providing his personal funds to support the project.

Clyburn praised Keyserling’s commitment saying, “there aren’t many days that go by that I don’t hear from Mayor Keyserling.”

Clyburn was responsible for having the area designated as the South Carolina Heritage Corridor, which also includes the Gullah-Geechee Corridor. Both areas were recognized by an act of Congress in 1996 and 2006, respectively. The Gullah-Geechee Corridor includes all of the Sea Islands from North Carolina to Florida.

The national monument is just the beginning of the plans for the Lowcountry to receive national recognition for its historical significance. Locally, an initiative to bring greater attention to Hilton Head, Bluffton, Port Royal and Beaufort has begun with Hilton Head Mayor David Bennett, who said he is motivated by a desire to make sure Mitchelville’s story is told.

“The story of Mitchelville is central to the identity, heritage and uniqueness of Hilton Head Island,” he said. “Yet, going into 2015, my first year as mayor, it continued to be represented by a few underfunded nonprofits and a mostly unused piece of town-owned land, clearly a missed opportunity.”

Getting the historical site the attention and recognition wasn’t easy, Bennett said.

“I needed the help of our citizens to garner additional support, and I requested our Town Council authorize the creation of the Hilton Head Island Heritage Tourism Taskforce with its three well-regarded founding members, Dr. Emory Campbell, Stu Rodman and Carlton Dallas, to consider the future of our historic assets and peoples,” he said. “Discussions between these three gentlemen and myself led us to the conclusion that much of Hilton Head’s rich history could best be told in complete tandem with the history of the rest of Beaufort County. So, I made contact with Mayor Lisa Sulka of Bluffton, Mayor Keyserling and Mayor Sam Murray of Port Royal and asked them to meet and consider the topic of promoting our heritage on a countywide scale. Rodman, a member of Beaufort County Council and one of the founders of the Santa Elena Foundation, asked the same of County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville.”

As a result, the Heritage Tourism Task Force, developed through the collaborative efforts of the four mayors, has identified more than 100 historic sites in the Lowcountry. 

These sites and the county’s rich history stand alongside other sites like Gettysburg, Williamsburg and Jamestown. The significance of the area can and should make Beaufort as well-known as these other locations.  

“Beaufort County has over 500 years of history that can be experienced,” says task force member Dr. Andy Beall, who also is chairman of the St. Elena Foundation.

The task force developed a list of categories to classify the Lowcountry sites, tied to historic eras: Native American, Early Explorers, Civil War, Gullah and Reconstruction.

“The categories will enable the committee to then establish a cohesive plan resulting in a historic trail that visitors would be able to follow and receive a thorough story of the beginning of America’s history,” Bennett said. 

Bennett envisions a historic trail that links the following sites and historic assets: “Santa Elena, telling the story of European exploration and settlement; Penn Center, telling the Gullah-Geechee and Reconstruction stories; Beaufort and Port Royal telling the story of Reconstruction; and Hilton Head telling the stories of the Civil War and Mitchelville.”

“The task force has been hard at work over the past year strategizing, forming subcommittees, and conducting internal tours of sites that fit into the following categories: Gullah Geechee, Civil War/Reconstruction, European, and Daufuskie Island,” Bluffton’s Sulka said. “Our objective while conducting these tours was to take notes and photos of what we saw, look at the history that is currently being delivered and the quality of the history experience.  Each tour was hosted by a different municipality, which gave everyone a great perspective and insight into the history of our area.”

The mayors realized that they “don’t compete with each other, we complement each other and work well with each other,” Keyserling said. “Studies show that golf is not the only thing that tourists are looking for. The task force is a pearl that came out of a conversation about economic development. We decided to take a look at the economic benefits of cultural tourism. Tourism creates more jobs. We want workers to be able stay closer to home and create a better tourism experience, which creates longer stays and shows our cultural substance. If we created a way for people to go from one site to another, we need to know more about each of the assets that we all have.”

According to committee member Dallas, the task force’s overarching goal is to create a “unified cultural destination experience with well packaged tours of substance that will attract people to the story of Reconstruction.” This would establish connectivity between the various areas of Beaufort County. Dallas summarized saying that his committee will “crystalize the findings into a foundation that the trail can be built on.”

African Americans plantation

In addition to creating an overall vision of heritage tourism for the area, the ultimate multi-faceted objectives of the task force are, according to Bennett, “to explore an affiliation with the Smithsonian, explore a national park or site designation, quantify the economic impact of our historical assets and identify next steps.”

The partnership would enable these historical sites to be cross-marketed as well as allow area leaders to leverage tourism dollars to better serve the community as a whole. Eventually, all of the destination marketing organizations will become involved.

“Better collaboration helps to improve the product and the visitor experience,” Keyserling said.

So far, the heritage trail doesn’t have an official name, but the thinking is that the Lowcountry network of sites could be similar to Boston’s Freedom Trail. The trail would enable cultural tourists to visualize the connection between all of the sites, telling a more cohesive story and moving visitors through the area in a uniform, well-informed fashion.

“My vision is for multiple trails and interpretive centers throughout Beaufort County,” Bennett said. “These organized interactions would insure the legacy of our Lowcountry by telling the ‘stories’ of our past to residents and visitors alike.”

“The Reconstruction is story that has not been told. Students in school are only being told part of the story. The story of Reconstruction needs to tell that there were a lot of black heroes just like George Washington and others. It’s a story that if we can get it out, can be a focal point for visitors to be able to learn more about the true story,” Keyserling said. “People realize that there is a real value to looking inward and want to know more about their past. Collaboration is hard between nonprofits, because they are fighting for dollars. There is room at the table for everybody. And everyone can benefit from the economic pie and grow together. This is a chance to take everything to the next level.”

Bennett agrees that the project’s partners “realize the potential of our collective heritage assets that enhance educational opportunities for our residents.” 

He added that recognizing the heritage and legacy of the Gullah people strengthens the community. Promoting heritage and cultural tourism benefits everyone on the island. It has been proven through research that cultural tourism has become a greater priority for visitors nationally and internationally, which is why Hilton Head should invest in its cultural assets.

All of this activity makes for an exciting time for the area as it finally gets the exposure that it deserves. The Lowcountry’s historical footprint is worthy of recognition, and the steps that are being taken on a local and national level are necessary and important ones that will continue to bring the region’s history into greater focus and bring about positive changes for our economic future.