Mitchelville Preservation Project keeping history alive, moving it into the future

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HISTORY OF MITCHELVILLE

“Good colored people, you have a great work to do, and you are in a position of responsibility. This experiment is to give you freedom, position, homes, your families, property, your own soil. It seems to me a better time is coming … a better day is dawning.”

With these words, Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel proclaimed that the land the people of Mitchelville, South Carolina, had once toiled under the chains of slavery was now their own.
— Excerpt from the Mitchelville Preservation Project History

Sometimes in life, big things begin with the simplest of words or the slightest gesture. The story of Mitchelville is just that, a radical idea during a time in our nation’s history when the Union forces were trying to win the Civil War as well as figure out how to deal with a large population of newly freed blacks who were dispersed throughout the South. The Mitchelville blacks who were living on Hilton Head Island lived in a way that was far from common. They created a safe space in the midst of a hostile, life-threatening environment. They became free while being surrounded on all sides by states that were not ready to give up on slavery, and they managed to develop a relatively comfortable, profitable and traditional way of life.

blackhistory03The town of Mitchelville began in 1862 when Gen. Ormbsy Mitchel, a former attorney and professor of mathematics, natural philosophy and astronomy, assumed command of the X Corps and the Department of the South at Hilton Head Island, which became the central location for the Union Army in the South and the launching point for many military operations. 

In 1861, the Union Army had liberated the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and their main harbor, Port Royal. At the sound of the gunboats, white Confederate soldiers, plantation owners and residents fled Hilton Head during the invasion, leaving behind everything — including 10,000 black slaves.

Once the Union Army occupied the island, the Port Royal Experiment began. This was a massive humanitarian effort to address the needs of 10,000 newly freed men, women and children. Although the military was in charge, it sought help from Northern charity organizations, which came to the South to help the former slaves become self-sufficient.  The Port Royal Experiment was a program in which former slaves lived and successfully farmed the land abandoned by their former plantation owners. Their success is impressive because they represented a fusion of various African languages and cultures that were collectively known Gullah, or Geechee.

Mitchel issued a military order freeing the slaves on Hilton Head and nearby islands, and providing them with land large enough for a town. In addition, each family was given a plot to grow crops and encouraged to organize their own town.  They were able to buy land, vote and farm for wages. 

The fully functioning town created an organizational structure with its own elected officials, taxes, retail stores and compulsory education for children aged six to 15 — something that had been denied to them as slaves.

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The people of Mitchelville were hungry to learn, and after having been denied education for so long, being free to learn to read and write was something that they highly valued. Both adults and children wanted to be educated. This thirst for knowledge led to Mitchelville establishing the first compulsory education law in South Carolina.

Religion played a very important part in Mitchelville because the church was the meeting place for all events and issues that were important to the community. The residents founded two churches: the First African Baptist Church in 1862 and the Queen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1865; both churches still exist today. By 1862, the town had more than 1,500 residents, some of which joined the Union Army. Because of its military importance, access to the town was restricted. Even white people were required to have military passes to enter town limits. Mitchelville was so successful, that Harriet Tubman was sent to Hilton Head to observe the Port Royal Project as a model of future freedman projects in the U.S.

HILTON HEAD ISLAND: AN IMPORTANT STOP ON THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

HARRIET TUBMANHARRIET TUBMAN

The following is an account courtesy of the official U.S. Army website, www.army.mil: 

Massachusetts Gov. John A. Andrew, a staunch abolitionist, was well-acquainted with Harriet's clandestine efforts and her passion to help. He had a problem: when federal troops occupied regions of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, the white plantation owners fled, leaving behind 10,000 slaves who became "contraband of war." They barely had clothes on their backs, much less jobs, money or education. They flocked to the Union camps, destitute and desperate. Gov. Andrew called on Harriet Tubman in the fall of 1861 and asked for her help to go south and help these former slaves adjust to their new way of life and to keep them from overrunning the camps. She agreed, telling a neighbor that he had advised her to act as a "spy, scout or nurse, as the circumstances required." The governor arranged for her transportation and assigned her to Gen. Hunter, who gratefully accepted her help.

Once on Hilton Head, Tubman began her work as a spy and an organizer and leader of scouts. She selected and paid (out of "Secret Service money") nine reliable black scouts, riverboat pilots who knew every inch of the local waterways, and trained them in methods of gathering intelligence. Using Tubman’s knowledge of covert travel and subterfuge and their familiarity with the terrain, these scouts mapped the shorelines and islands of South Carolina. Tubman and her scouts provided valuable intelligence to the newly formed black regiments, providing, for example, vulnerabilities and locations of Confederate sentinels. Historian H. Donald Winkler, in his book “Stealing Secrets,” writes: "Harriet and her nine-man spy team evolved into a kind of special-forces operation for the black regiments. Her team sneaked up and down rivers and into swamps and marshes to determine enemy positions, movements, and fortifications on the shoreline beyond the Union pickets."

She was smart and strategic, devising clever disguises and playing to her strengths. She operated in winter, when nights were long and people stayed indoors, and made her return trips with the escaped slaves on Saturdays because the papers did not print runaway notices until Mondays.

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An activist in the Freedman's Aid Society wrote of her in 1865: "She has needed disguises so often, that she seems to have command over her face, and can banish all expression from her features, and look so stupid that nobody would suspect her of knowing enough to be dangerous; but her eye flashes with intelligence and power when she is roused." These experiences not only made Harriet Tubman famous, they made her a valuable asset to the military.

Tubman stayed in the South for the next year, helping in any way she could. Sometimes this meant assisting military regiments, participating in guerrilla activities, or baking and selling pies to help the newly liberated slaves. Through it all, she communicated with her black neighbors, obtaining more intelligence from them than anyone else could, and passing that intelligence on to the commanders for action.

The military gave Tubman unlimited access to rations and supplies and access to the soldiers so that she could earn money selling root beer and her pies. After all of Tubman’s contributions to the military and Civil War, she was never paid for her service.

MITCHELVILLE PRESERVATION PROJECT

The Mitchelville Preservation Project was formed 10 years ago by a group of local residents who saw the historical value of the community that they grew up in, and the importance of keeping the legacy of Mitchelville alive for current and future generations. The project was developed to “help create an understanding of who the people were and what they were able to achieve,” says Joyce Wright, organization’s project manager. What’s interesting about the project is that it is evolving from merely telling the story of America’s past, into using the story to shape the future of the island as well. They have had many successes, including establishing Mitchelville as a significant part in the Underground Railroad. Mitchelville has recently been added as a member of the U.S. National Parks’ annual Network to Freedom Underground Railroad Conference.

NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act of 1998 was passed to enable the U.S. National Park Service to create a national Underground Railroad program called the Network of Freedom, which coordinates the preservation of local historical places, artifacts, museums and programs associated with the Underground Railroad into a cohesive collection of accessible national stories and locations. Hilton Head Island has been recognized as the only place in South Carolina for its historical importance in the Underground Railroad with three areas of membership: The Heritage Library, Mitchelville and Fort Howell, which is located within Mitchelville. The following are excerpts from the Network of Freedom explaining the rationale of the project and the importance of Mitchelville’s inclusion in the network.

MITCHELVILLE

The Mitchelville Freedom Park commemorates the nearly forgotten, historic town of Mitchelville, South Carolina. Two distinct phases qualified Mitchelville as an important Underground Railroad site. First, it was the site of mass escapes from Hilton Head Island plantations when Union troops entered Port Royal Sound in November 1861. With the first shots fired, the enslaved island population seized their opportunity for freedom. Despite threats and deception by local plantation owners, freedom-seekers bolted to the woods until Union troops occupied the area. Second, Mitchelville became the destination for waves of freedom-seekers fleeing bondage in nearby Confederate territories of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. It was the place where the newly emancipated would first experience freedom and emerge from enslaved victims into responsible citizens.

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Mitchelville was the heart of The Port Royal Experiment, which was launched by the U.S. government and proved to a skeptical American public that African-Americans would fight for freedom and country, work for wages within a free-enterprise labor system, and live responsibly as independent citizens. Mitchelville was constructed, inhabited and governed exclusively by previously enslaved freedom-seekers. Activities in this settlement were reported nationwide, ultimately influencing national reconstruction policies.

FORT HOWELL

Fort Howell was constructed in 1864 on Hilton Head Island to defend the nearby freedmen's village of Mitchelville from possible Confederate raids. Mitchelville was established in 1862 to provide a community where freedom seekers could live and self-govern under their newfound freedom under the protection of the Union Army. Mitchelville was the clearest example of the Port Royal Experiment, whereby formerly enslaved people demonstrated their willingness to fight for freedom and their capacity to live independently.

By 1864, Union military units were being drawn from the Department of the South for operations further north. Military operations transitioned from offensive to defensive in the area. Three major new earthworks were constructed on Hilton Head, including Fort Howell, which was located to provide protection for Mitchelville. Fort Howell was constructed in part by the 32nd USCT Infantry unit. This unit, raised in Pennsylvania from volunteers coming from Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania, was comprised mostly of free blacks, rather than formerly enslaved men.

Fort Howell is nominated as a military site. It also complements the commemoration of Mitchelville, a destination site for freedom seekers. For visitors, this site builds upon the history of the origin and activities of Mitchelville residents — i.e., service in the U.S. Navy and the formation of the first U.S. Colored Army, whose troops were instrumental in the Union’s overall victory. Fort Howell is an ideal site to serve as a future commemoration of the thousands of freedom seekers who served valiantly in the US military.

HILTON HEAD’S ANCESTRAL IMPACT ON THE BLACK COMMUNITY

blackhistory07In 2006, the United States government took the extraordinary step of recognizing with an act of Congress the contributions made by the Gullah people to America. This act acknowledged the 400-year history of the Gullah/Geechee people who lived in Mitchelville and along 79 coastal Sea Islands from North Carolina to Florida. The national recognition of the Gullah/Geechee Corridor as well as Mitchelville’s inclusion as a member of the National Network of Freedom takes on another significant level of importance as people nationwide are doing research on their ancestral histories. It is even more important to preserve the history of Mitchelville and the story of the Gullah people who made it a success because of the renewed interest in ancestry. Being a part of the National Network of Freedom is an incredible opportunity for Hilton Head for a variety of reasons. One important reason is that it makes Hilton Head’s historical value an even greater part of the American story. Tourists would be drawn to the island both because of its historic significance and its value as a resort destination.

THE ‘1870S SLAVE WALL’

Researching African-American ancestral roots has its own particular set of challenges, since African-Americans cannot always discover the African country that they came from through traditional research methods or through DNA testing. Ancestral research for many black people is complicated by the impact of the slave experience on record-keeping and document retrieval.

blackhistory08Most black people doing research get frustrated when they hit what is referred to as the “1870s slave wall.” The “slave wall” is sometimes the end of most family tree searches, because most slave owners often did not record their slaves’ names or information because of their status as property prior to the abolishment of slavery in 1865. As a result of the rich traditions and determination to preserve the Gullah culture and community, blacks who trace their ancestry back to a location within the Gullah / Geechee Corridor now have something tangible that they can connect to.

For example, although it may be impossible to identify which specific village in Africa a family line comes from, an analysis of slave records from the port of Charleston shows that 32 percent of Lowcountry slaves came from Angola, while 27 percent came from Senegambia (Senegal and Gambia), 32 percent from the Winward Coast — which includes Liberia, the Ivory Coast and Ghana, 6 percent from Sierra Leone and 3 percent from Madagascar and Mozambique.

These percentages include both enslaved people transported to the Lowcountry directly from Africa, as well as Africans enslaved in the Caribbean and transported to the Lowcountry. In fact, most of the slaves brought to South Carolina had previously spent time in the Caribbean, particularly the island of Barbados, to be “seasoned” to the climate and work.

Ultimately, the Lowcountry became one of the last places in the U.S. to stop importing slaves; based on ship cargo manifests, the last documented cargo of slaves to America arrived on Jekyll Island, Georgia, in 1858 — 50 years after slavery had been outlawed. These different African cultures and traditions eventually formed the basis of what we now call Gullah/Geechee culture.

Not only is the National Network of Freedman an important part of Mitchelville’s future, but “is it the only project that can unite all types of people on Hilton Head Island because it is part of America’s story, not just the story about the black residents who live on Hilton Head. We are very passionate about making sure that the Mitchelville story is told on a local and national level,” says Shirley Peterson, chairman of the Mitchelville Preservation Project board of directors. “We know that the Mitchelville Preservation Project can become of interest to the cultural tourist, who is just as important as a leisure tourist. We need to increase our investment in the economic value that Mitchelville can bring to the island. I believe that when as story is well told, people nationally will become as passionate as we are about Mitchelville. Cultural tourism is becoming a growing economic factor in America and Mitchelville is a strong piece of America’s history that needs to be shared.” 

To help share that history, the Mitchelville Preservation Project has several initiatives, events and fundraising opportunities planned throughout the year that will aid in telling their story as well as making the park more viable.

The preservation of all of America’s heritage is an important step in not only understanding our past but also having a point of reference to learn from our mistakes so we can make a better future. Mitchelville has the potential to offer a fabulous education for us all. Historic sites are being carefully preserved, and children and adults will benefit from all of the artifacts and information that has been gathered over the years to tell this very important story.

Mitchelville is much more than an old plot of land. It’s the birthplace of blacks who became free from a life of bondage. A place where slaves were given a chance to self-govern and establish roots of their own in a land that they had adopted as their own, as well as maintain culture and traditions that continue today. The Mitchelville Preservation Project has been and continues to collect stories and artifacts that demonstrate the richness of the story of Mitchelville.  The project has done well with establishing Mitchellville’s exhibit and park, however, their work is far from over. The project continues to search for stories and artifacts from past and present native islanders. Part of its growth means that it also needs permanent structures for a welcome center and museum to be built within Mitchelville so that the collection can be housed in one place, and displayed in a way that captures the imagination and maximizes its historical value.

The Mitchelville Preservation Project has also been recognized as a potential co-host for the upcoming Underground Railroad Conference in 2016. If you haven’t already experienced Mitchelville, the Historic Mitchellville Freedom Park is located on Beach City Road at Fish Creek Park, where you can step back in time while on a self-guided tour that lays out the way in which Mitchelville was set up long ago. In addition to the park, you explore the Mitchelville Exhibit, created by the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina. The exhibit is on display at The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa. If you are unable to get to the park or the exhibit, tune into NBC this month for a documentary on Mitchelville and its historical significance.

For more information on the Mitchelville Preservation Project, go to www.mitchelvillepreservationproject.com.