First Families of Hilton Head Island: The Burkes

People
Typography

The many members of the Burke family. Standing, from left to right: Alvin McGowan, Brittany Kitty, Linda Burke Smart, Betty Burke Days, Lisa Kitty, Robena Greene, Jamila Days, Sidney A. Jones, Herbert Ford, Renee Ford, Mary Ford, Shirley Drayton, Geneva Mitchell, Georgia Aiken, Anaya Milledge, Carol Lewis, and Brenda Williams. Sitting: Jamecca Ladson, Jayce Charles, LB Ladson, Edward P. Days III, Keith Ford, Treasure Days, Erica McGowan, Virgil Ford, Zykeria Gethers, Chelsea Lewis, and Ari Milledge.

Imagine that at one point after the Civil War, there were 10,000 newly freed slaves on Hilton Head Island. Excited and wanting to start new lives, they were forced to make many important decisions. Where should they settle down? Should they stay in the same area or set out for somewhere new? What name should they use? Should they keep the familiar slave name that is familiar, or should they try to erase their old identity by choosing a new name?  

Many of the newly freed slaves choose Hilton Head as the starting place for their new lives; tens of thousands of people put down roots on the island. This was historically important because they established the first self-governed town for newly freed blacks. Because they represented a blend of African countries and cultures, these people became known as the Gullah-Geechee.

Mitchelville was a fully functioning town; it was completely self-sufficient. The black men who governed it controlled access to the town. Even whites and the 30,000 Civil War soldiers who inhabited the island needed passes to enter the town’s boundaries. Mitchelville had everything, from an independent governing body and the first compulsory educational system in the state to a variety of businesses and a 500-bed hospital. Records show that patients came to the hospital for the usual variety of ailments.

It is from hospital records that we learn that two small children were admitted to the hospital on June 11, 1867, for 16 days to be treated for a recurring fever. The children were Rachel Burke, age 9, and Edward Burke Jr., age 3. According to the records, the Burke family lived in the Chaplin area of Hilton Head. Rachel and Edward’s parents, Edward Sr. and Mary, had two other children, January and Polly.

Edward Burke Sr. was a former slave who chose to stay on Hilton Head and make it his home. Born in 1825, he became the patriarch of nine generations of Burkes who farmed the land that he eventually left to his son, January.

Edward was around 40 years old during the Civil War, and January was about 12 in 1863. There are no records of either of them serving in the war; however, because of their ages, they probably contributed to the war effort in some way.

Over time, the Burke family was able to make a good life for themselves on the island. Back then, “people lived like they were rich and everyone knew each other and they shared all that they had,” says Betty Burke Days January’s great-granddaughter. The sense of community was so strong among the island’s families “that they would come together to build each other’s houses.”

The Burkes played a part in all of the island’s activities. January’s son, Harry, and his wife, Rebecca, worked for the soldiers in Palmetto Dunes. The couple was responsible for laundering and ironing the soldiers’ uniforms. The work afforded them the chance to bring food to the area of Shelter Cove where they lived at the end of each day.

A generation later, January’s son, James, and his brother-in-law, Henry Ford, became bakers in Savannah at Holston and Claassen Bakeries. Eventually, Henry became known on the island as “The Bread Man” because he would bring his van full of breads and cakes home every day to sell to the native islanders. His daily deliveries were truly an island favorite, and on some days, he ran out of bread before making it all the way around the island.

For Gullah people, inherited land is both a strong source of pride and the most important, tangible link to the family’s heritage and legacy. Land that was occupied by newly freed slaves, unless it was purchased, did not come with a deed. Property ownership was established through a consistent presence on the land; passing the land down through the generations established ownership. This is known as heirs property today.

By the time January Burke died, he left a significant inheritance of land in the area that we now know as Burke’s Beach that stretches up to William Hilton Parkway in the Chaplin area. Early on, the family understood and appreciated the value of the land and fought hard to keep it. Nancy Burke Ford, January’s granddaughter, would spend the winters working in Savannah to earn enough money each year to pay the taxes on the land so that it would be kept in the family. Before Henry Ford died, he wanted to make sure to “give all of his nieces and nephews a piece of land.” The land eventually was divided up among the children, but it continues to be classified as heirs property today.

Each first family’s story is a piece of the past that, like in a quilt, helps to form a beautiful pattern. Each piece is a unique and important part of the whole. The Burkes survived because of the strength of the family and the strength of their ties to the land.