Mitchelville Master Plan

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REFERENDUM’S DELAY MAY AFFECT PACE AT HISTORIC MITCHELVILLE FREEDOM PARK

The plans were finalized, the meetings had been held, the committees had all approved everything. The only step left was final approval from the Town of Hilton Head Island before Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park’s executive director, Ahmad Ward, and its board could begin the arduous task of fundraising. 

But then, unexpectedly, the $5 million in town funds that would have gone toward the park if voters approved the town’s proposed “quality of life” tax was delayed by more than a year. The day after committees approved the master plan for a series of reconstructed houses, educational pathways and an interpretive center at the park, the town opted to postpone the public referendum vote on the $65 million parks and arts tax. 

The decision to delay the referendum came after residents complained that the vote felt rushed and the projects had received little public comment. Officials will spend the next 18 months working with consultants to define project details and educating the public about the issues. Originally scheduled for May, the referendum will now be on ballots in November 2021. If voters approve it, $30 million for recreation and $35 million for arts and culture organizations will be disbursed over the next 25 years. 

The decision to postpone the referendum surprised almost everyone. 

Mitchelville Freedom3

Mitchelville Freedom4

“Obviously, we would have liked to have that $5 million sooner rather than later, but the thing is, this gives us more time to explain to people what will happen,” Ward said. “(That money is) a quarter of what we need. It’s no small thing. … All we can do is talk about what we’re going to do.” 

Fortunately, Ward and the park’s board of directors say they weren’t counting solely on the referendum for funding. They’ve already reached out to national groups like the Smithsonian Institute and the National Museum of African American Culture and History to help spread the word about the Mitchelville project. Mitchelville is the nation’s first town for freed slaves, and the lessons to be learned from its history include resilience, perseverance and self-determination. The park speaks to the African American experience nationwide. 

“Around 20 to 40 percent of African Americans can trace their lineage back to South Carolina, so that gives us the opportunity to tell that story,” Ward said. “There’s a tourism highway that runs from Charleston to Savannah, and there’s 500 years of history in Beaufort County.”

Culture and history also coincide with one of the fastest-growing trends in travel. In 2018, cultural heritage tourism accounted for $192 billion in travel spending, with $63 billion coming from African American tourists. According to Ward, South Carolina only pocketed $2.4 billion of that. 

“There’s an opportunity there to not only change how we look at Hilton Head Island, but how we look at the state. If this is successful, the tourism (landscape) changes,” he said.

He and the rest of the Mitchelville board hope expanding the park will help better highlight the history — and historical significance — of the site. Reconstructed housing will show visitors how Mitchelville’s first residents lived, and plans are in the works to re-create the freedmen town’s general store. However, plans to rebuild the town’s church were scrapped after Native American artifacts were also found at the site; instead, a “reflection area” is planned.

“It’s common knowledge that Native Americans and Africans in America have had a long history of interacting with each other, and this is an opportunity to talk about that connection and highlight the archaic imprint on the site,” Ward said.

The centerpiece of Historic Mitchelville will be an 18,000-square-foot interpretive center, which will host everything from educational seminars to gallery shows and historic maps showing where structures once stood. Now that the plans have been approved, it’s all a matter of funding. 

“Everything would be predicated on how funds are coming in,” Ward said, noting that to build everything included in the master plan would cost about $22 million. “But we’re working on a couple of channels and have some irons in the fire.”

The expansion will allow for more programming, extended tours and presentations for students and visitors of all ages. “Right now, we offer Griot’s Corner. He’s a West African storyteller and teacher,” Ward said. “When we have buildings out here, there will be more opportunities for lectures and exhibitions. We want to make sure visitors have a genuine connection to Mitchelville.”