Photo by Rob Kaufman: From left: Bill Green, Mary Lawyer Green, Rosalind Trotter, Mike Major, Louise Lawyer McCluney, George McCluney, Samantha Mendoza, Uriel Mendoza, Veronica Lawyer Ferguson and May Lawyer.
Very few details are known about the personal stories and the often heroic lives of the original residents of Mitchelville. The story of the Lawyer family is important because it is a story of survival, and fearless determination to succeed against all odds. It provides us with new and valuable insights into Hilton Head Island’s past. This is a story about a proud and courageous American family that dates all of the way back to Mitchellville’s heyday in the mid-19th century.
The story begins with Edward “Ned” Lawyer Sr., born into slavery in 1841 on Edisto Island. Around 1863, when he was in his early 20s, it is believed that he escaped from his owners and eventually made his way to Hilton Head. At the time, Hilton Head had become a haven for newly freed slaves because the Union Army was encamped here. The army chose Hilton Head because of its strategic location, and several military operations throughout the South were launched from Hilton Head. Lawyer was among roughly 10,000 slaves who risked their lives escaping from areas all over the South to get to Hilton Head, where they would be protected and permitted to begin their lives as free men and women, as well as to join the military.
In an attempt to address the needs of the huge numbers of slaves flocking to the island, the government began a program called the Port Royal Experiment. This eventually led to the establishment of Mitchelville, the first self-governed town for black freedmen in the United States.
Lawyer, like many of the escaped slaves, wanted to do his part to end slavery and enlisted in the Union Army’s 21st U.S. Colored Infantry on May 11, 1863. He served until 1866. After the war, he settled in Hilton Head, married Rhina Richardson, and had six children. This was the beginning of a family legacy rich in a love for the island and its unique water-based culture.
The Lawyers, like most families on Hilton Head, depended on the land as well as the surrounding waters to sustain them. For generations, they made fishing the family business. This included Lawyer’s sons, Edward Jr. and Jack, and all of his grandsons, including Arthur Lawyer Sr. However, even though an existence surrounded by water brought them life and joy, it brought tragedy and loss as well.
Everyone in the family had a part to play in the family business; the men were responsible for going out on the water to catch the fish, and the women processed the daily catch. Every day, the men went out to farm the waters of Broad Creek. Prior to setting sail, they gathered their supplies and the tools they needed. This included the skillfully woven nets that they cast into the waters to catch the fish. Edward Jr.’s daughter, Helen, was an expert in the fine art of net-making, providing the nets they used to catch shrimp and other types of fish.
Over the years, Ned’s grandson, Arthur Sr., began to focus on oysters. This meant that every day the Lawyer men would take their boats out, wade through shallow water into the thick mud they called “gumbo mud,” and fill their buckets with oysters. Once the oysters were collected, they were brought back to shore; some made it to the table for dinner, but most were sold to the local oyster factories for about $12 a bushel. Once at the oyster factory, Arthur Sr.’s wife, Mary Jones Lawyer, along with most of the women from the island took over the job of washing and shucking the oysters for about $7 a gallon. The hard work of filling 6 to 7 gallons a day was considered a good day’s work. That was the daily routine for the men and women in the Lawyer family for generations. The problem was, that even though they lived on an island surrounded by water, many of the native islanders didn’t know how to swim. Tragically, Arthur Lawyer Sr. drowned while trying to provide for his family.
Although devastated, the family was grateful for their father’s life of hard work and sacrifice, as well as the legacy that he left. His wife, Mary, was strong and committed to keeping her family together, and she did the very best that she could to care for her 13 children after her husband’s death. Her daughter, Louise Lawyer McCluney, said she “gave hard love to all of her children in order to protect us. A look from our mother told us when to get back in line.” Another daughter, Mary Green, spoke of the values she learned from her mother: “We were raised to work for what we want. I was 9 when my father died. After my father died, my mother taught us how to survive and to live with dignity and to value life and education.”
The Lawyer sisters reminisced about their childhood, and about growing up on family land off of Gum Tree Road. They called it the “sticks.” They remember their mother as their first teacher; she taught them the importance of self-respect, discipline and hard work. Every weekday, she woke them early in the morning so that they could get their chores done on the farm before heading off to Honey Horn, their one-room school. This was a simpler life. It was a time when they used herbs for healing the sick because there was no doctor nearby, and if they wanted to “figure out their shoe size,” they would use string to measure their feet, Mary Green said.
A lot has changed on the island since then, and the Lawyer family continues to be a part of the island’s future. Although they do not depend on farming and fishing for their livelihood as they did in years past, they do continue the tradition of boating and fishing today. Arthur Sr.’s grandson, Michael Major, an avid boater lives in the present, but remembers the past. Showing his respect for the water, he said, “I was taught to take being on the water very seriously. It’s not a place to play around.” That’s an important lesson that we could all learn from.
Hearing about a family’s story, such as like the Lawyers, gives us a much needed perspective that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. It provides us with not only a glimpse into the past, but it also enables us to grow into the future.