How formerly enslaved people built a flourishing community on Hilton Head during the Civil War

Most of us know that South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union and is where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. But did you know that South Carolina was also home to the first self-governed town of formerly enslaved people?

After the Union defeated Confederate troops at Hilton Head Island, scores of formerly enslaved people poured into the area. Ormsby Mitchel, a Union officer, turned 600 to 700 acres of property over to Black Americans, who established the community of Mitchelville, where Black people lived and worked, taught and learned and voted on local issues — even before the war ended.

Ahmad Ward, executive director of Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, joined Reckon for a discussion about the history of the region, efforts to restore and remember the community and whether it’s appropriate for people to use former plantations as entertainment venues.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.

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Reckon: Ahmad, can you tell us what happened at Mitchellville and why it’s important that we preserve it and remember it?

Ahmad Ward: Absolutely. So Mitchelville is the first self-governed town of formerly enslaved people in the United States, established on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, in 1862. So that was following the Battle of Port Royal, which happened in November of 1861, which basically freed Hilton Head Island from Confederate control and turned Hilton Head into the Department of the South. So, you had 40-50,000 Union troops on Hilton Head Island, and it’s only about a 12-mile island. That’s a lot of folks.

And as you can imagine, the enslaved populations in the plantations around the area, once they found out Hilton Head was freed, all tried to get there. So, there’s an influx that’s happening.

It’s overcrowded, of course. The commander at the time, David Hunter tried to start the colored troops a little bit earlier than he should have. They shut him down. He got reassigned.

In comes Ormsby Mitchel, who sees this situation where he can really push what they were fighting for, because along with being a military man he also was an abolitionist. And so he gave the people about 6-700 acres of property and said, “you can build on it, you can grow on it, you can create your community here. This is the chance to maintain your families and property.”

And so these people flourished. They had access to the Union Army sawmill. Built between three to five houses a day. At its height between 1862 and 1868, Mitchelville had roughly around 3000 residents, nearly 500 homes. There were four churches, three schools, about three stores. Entrepreneurship was happening. Folks were able to vote on their own livelihood experiences.

So you had a time during enslavement, during the Civil War, where Black people are voting on their own interests. When at a time only white, wealthy male land owners could vote. And all of this is happening in the state that started the Civil War, during the Civil War. During enslavement. So this is definitely something that wasn’t supposed to be happening. But it was. And the impact is still being felt today.

Reckon: And, you know, we don’t really learn a whole lot about these communities that happened during the Civil War or during the Reconstruction period in our typical history programs. I think there was also one in Mississippi? Davis Bend?

Ward: Oh, there’s communities everywhere. There’s Allensworth in California. You had Seneca Village, which predates us in 1825. But that was really built by free Blacks. And now it’s Central Park. Fort Mose in St. Augustine, Florida, which goes back to 1783. But Florida at that time was Spanish territory, so it was not the United States. So that’s why we make the claims that we do. And so you have these towns everywhere.

Weeksville in New York, which is, you know, later in the 1800s. There are stories of these towns all over the place. I think one of the oldest incorporated cities, if you looked it up is Eatonville, Florida in 1887.

So this history is all around, but there’s various reasons why you don’t hear about it in the history books. You know, number one, there was no premium placed on any kind of Black history there for the first 50 to 60 years of the 20th century. So of course, you’re not going to hear about it. And then in a time when you’re trying to do this, go back and reach and get history. You know, it depends on who’s telling the story.

Reckon: So what happened? Obviously, this community was flourishing for a while. And then I assume at some point that came to an end. Do we know what happened?

Ward: We do. What happens is the army leaves in 1868 so that moves the economic engine away from the town. But even though the community contracts, you still have people there growing and working and fishing and doing all of the things for the community itself. So it maintains this community structure going deep into the 1880s even though it does contract and shrink.

But you got to think, some of these people left Mitchelville to go closer to the mainland because Hilton Head is shaped like a shoe. And Mitchelville’s on the back at the end of the shoe on the heel, which is right up there on Port Royal Sound which leads to the Atlantic Ocean. So storms are coming and people are trying to escape the storms.

And in 1893, the Great Sea Islands hurricane happens, which, you know, just wipes out everything that’s there. Kills 2,500 people on the coasts. It was America’s greatest natural disaster for a long time. And Clara Barton, who started the American Red Cross, and who was familiar with Mitchelville going back to the Civil War, comes back 30 years later. And she basically single-handedly shepherds the rehabilitation of the Sea Island coastline. Especially in Buford County and Hilton Head, because the government wasn’t moving the way she wanted them to move. So she raised private donations and brought stuff in and she really helped get Hilton Head back in order. And so that’s why there’s nothing left standing, because it was all wiped away by the storm.

Reckon: When did efforts to restore it and turn it into a site of historical remembrance begin? How long has that project been underway?

Ward: Well, there’s been efforts for at least 35 years or more. But in various stages. There wouldn’t be anything left if it wasn’t for some people who were connected to the site: John Chrogan, was working with a gentleman named Michael Trinkley, who was doing archaeology in the area, and they found some material not that far from where the airport is now. And said “we got something here, we got to look into it and see what’s happening.”

So if he hadn’t done that, then we wouldn’t have the 33 acres that we have now. So it became a national historic site, known as the Fish Haul Creek archaeological site, because that area was the old Fish Haul Plantation. And so that was just really good fortune, because there’s development happening all around that area. And we might not have had that much left. Like the rest of Mitchelville is under homes, living communities, an airport runway. It’s all been mowed over.

And so the town made that area a park in 2000. And there’s been efforts since the early 2000s to maintain and talk about Mitchelville. And then in 2010, people got together and actually got a 501c3 for at that point what was known as the Mitchelville Preservation Project, to try to keep things in order. Now it’s officially Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park. And I came in as the first executive director around 2017.

So we’ve spent the last four years working on a master plan, business plan to serve as a blueprint for this cultural attraction. To build the infrastructure. We’re doing feasibility studies right now for an upcoming campaign. To do everything we want to do, cherry on top with whipped cream and icing, is going to be about $22.8 million. But we have a national strategy to get that money because we believe we have a national story to tell.

Reckon: What is it that you want to do? And what other sites serve as a model for the type of experience you want to create there?

Ward: Based on archaeology, we’ve been able to locate a pretty good amount of the template where we are of where the town was. The role of the homes. This was built on a grid inspired by the Army Corps of Engineers. Each family got a quarter acre of a lot. The homes are only about 12×15 feet, but you know, you go from slave cabins to this, it doesn’t really matter. Plus you’re working outside. So the size is not as big a deal.

But the thing is the property.

Like having a quarter acre of a lot to do whatever you want. You know, these people went from being property to owning property, which is one of the main things we talk about. That’s a big sea change in somebody’s mind.

And so we’re going to recreate some of the homes. We’re about 85% sure, we know where one of the historic churches is and we were gonna just put the church there but we’ve also found 4000 year-old indigenous imprint in that area, potentially the Catawba tribe, or First Nation Catawba Nation, or the Wassamassaw or the Edisto, Natchez, Coosa, we’re not really sure. The Catawba are the only governmentally recognized indigenous group in the state of South Carolina. So we’re making some inroads there to see if we could talk to them as well. They have a reservation in Rock Hill. And so that will be a reflection area where we’ll talk about that important connection between Africans in America and Native people.

And we’re going to have an interpretive center that will help us talk about all of the story, wrapping it from The Battle of Port Royal until now, talking about the very important connection to Gullah culture. Because the majority of the people here would have been Gullah, because we’re smack dab in the middle of the Gullah Geechee corridor that goes from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida.

So we want to talk about all of this tremendous history, but link it back to why this is important in the 21st century. So the themes that are going to govern our interpretation are: freedom, democracy, citizenship and opportunity. These are all American ideals. They don’t get old, we can all connect to them no matter what our background is. They might be threatened from time to time, but they still have connectivity to everyday Americans.

And so to answer the other part of the question about, you know, what are we looking at as far as templates? I gotta tell you, one of the spaces that stuck out to me was the Whitney Plantation, which is in Wallace, Louisiana, and it’s the only plantation where all of the interpretation revolves around the enslaved population. And it is an incredible place to go.

But I borrow from all of the Civil Rights sites that I’ve visited or worked with, especially while I was at Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for 18 years. And so there are things that I’m pulling from all of these places.

But anything outdoors. I think the easiest thing to get people to wrap their minds around is Williamsburg without the interpreters. Because we’re not going to have a lot of living interpretation there.

We want to concentrate on the people because Mitchel, even though he makes this happen, he catches yellow fever and dies within 45 days of starting it. And so he’s not there. But it’s called Mitchelville in his honor.

But the people who really get this thing going are folks like Abraham Murchison, who was the mayor and who was the pastor of the first church on the site, First African Baptist, which really was formed in August of 1862, about three months before the community actually is open and running.

There are a lot of plantation sites that like McCloud Plantation here in South Carolina, we’re also able to borrow some inspiration from them. But also places like the National Museum [of African American History & Culture] on the Mall, I mean, the breadth of the things that they cover. And the storytelling from the Civil Rights Institute, like the theme that runs through that whole structure is also gonna be very important to how we are frame working this.

So the event lawn on the back end of the interpretive center, is going to be three-fourths of an acre. We’ll have three sections where when young people come to the facility, they can see how big a quarter acre actually is in relationship to the homes. And so we’ll have some demarcations along the park site where they can see where this is where historic home would have been. And this is how long their property would have been. And this is what they would have eaten, and this is how they fished.

This is the ‘bato,’ which is the traditional Gullah boat that they used to go out on the Port Royal Sound to get fish and shrimp and crab. This is a garden. And these are the things that they grew here: sweet potato, okra, tomatoes, watermelon. And this is how they were able to live.

Reckon: You mentioned Whitney, and then also that that site was on the grounds of a former plantation. And that seems to speak to you know, this broader conversation that we’re having a society about a lot of these antebellum and mid bellum sites and preservation of those throughout the South, and probably even beyond. You’ve got all these plantation homes that sometimes get used as wedding venues or prom venues and things like that. And then you have sites like Whitney that are committed to using those sites to teach about the horrors of slavery. And then you have sites that maybe traditionally did not do that but are now starting to do it a little bit more like Monticello in Virginia. What has been your experience trying to raise funds for a site like this? Have you run into some pushback from donors who don’t necessarily want to tell that part of history? And do you think it’s appropriate that we use these former sites as places of entertainment?

Ward: We’re not running into pushback as far as the story goes. Our thing is just brand awareness. We don’t have enough people who know about Mitchelville so we’re trying to change that. There’s marketing and branding involved in this national campaign strategy. So that’s been very interesting to pull together.

I think what we’ve seen in South Carolina, is there’s a whole lot of plantations who are doing interpretation and doing weddings and events and things of that nature. There’s been a lot of conversation here because, especially near Charleston, because there’s so many locations for destination weddings that happen in these plantations, that people are wondering, “well, is this something that should happen or not?”

I go on the side of: it is politically problematic for you to do these now.

You know, I understand that people want to do it. There’s this “simpler time” thing, it’s this romanticization of plantation life that people are looking for. But I mean, those are areas where people were raped and murdered, enslaved, whipped.

People of color, specifically Black people, do not have these rose-colored glass views of plantations. And let’s say if somebody was going to invite me to a wedding on a plantation, I’m probably not going, I’m not going.

Like I would go to some plantations to see what the interpretation is like. Because, like you just said, I’ve seen some places where they’re really trying to improve the interpretation. I mentioned McLeod plantation earlier. They’ve gone to great lengths to change their interpretation and really be more inclusive.

I think about a place that’s not a plantation, but it’s a presidential home and that’s Montpelier. It’s James Madison’s home in Virginia. Their archaeology is really keyed in around slave quarters and learning about the site. And the entire basement of the home talks about the enslaved population on the grounds now. Which is a big deal for presidential home to do. That’s a huge deal. And it’s pretty well done.

And so this is a big change for some people in the South, especially where the history of plantations are only one-sided, the Gone with the Wind interpretation of it.

I think it’s moving in a direction where it’s really going to be more prudent for you to not have your wedding on these sites. Or if you’re going to have an interpretation of the site, you’ve got to include what happened to the people who were actually doing the work there. And if you don’t, people are going to call you out. And we see that happening more and more. At some point, it’s going to turn into an issue with revenue for some of these places, but they just got to figure it out.

And then there’s just the personal knowledge, if you’re going to have an event on a plantation, you’ve got to take all that comes with it. You know, the history is there, you can’t change it.

Reckon: If people want to learn more about Mitchelville, is there a site open for visitors now? 

Ward: Yes. So exploremitchelville.org is our website, which we’re doing a revamp of, so people can go now, but it will be different in August. But the actual physical site, you can come on the property now. We have some interpretive panels on the site, there are a couple of facades of buildings on the site now. We have an example of a bato there.

There are places where you can scan and get more information. So we do have some interpretation happening on the site. But most of it is property. It’s dirt, dust and trees. It’s a pretty park now. But we want to get out there and start building.

And so that’s why we’re setting up this campaign to start putting some things in place there sooner rather than later. And so we’re working to get structures on the site, even some more advanced interpretation on the property so people can really understand it.

One of the things I’m hopeful to do before the summer is over is get some signage out there with our full map of what the place is going to look like. So when people come to visit, and people are in the park all the time, when people come to visit, they can see this is what the layout is and how it’s going to look whenever we get everything together and ready to roll. So yeah, you can come visit. It’s still a town park right now so it’s open to the public. And we can maintain free admission to the site. But we will charge admission at the interpretive center once we have everything together.

Reckon: Do you have a timeline of when you think this will all come together?

Ward: I’ve been telling people three to five years; I think is feasible. But it all depends on angel donors. And you know, we got some things in the hopper. There’s some asks we’re making that are happening high seven figures. There’s money that we’re looking at on the federal level as well. We have a couple of things to land in place, we can get this thing kicking off enrolling sooner rather than later. So we’re doing the work to try to get there. So you know, we’re being ambitious with it. But, hey, you could also see two to three years to have some structures right there and ready to go.

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