Da Spirit of Freedom Lives in We
Before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Hilton Head Island was home to the nation’s first freedman’s community, Mitchelville.
Today, a lone historic marker on Beach City Road is all that remains of this once self-sustaining, self-governing village comprised solely of African Americans at “the dawn of freedom.”
However, a diverse group of Island residents have come together to save this important and unique Civil War site from oblivion and to preserve a portion of it as a heritage attraction. The Town of Hilton Head Island leased 16 acres at Fish Haul Creek Park for Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park. The Park pays homage to the town’s founder, Mitchelville’s first mayor, the first regiment of Colored Troops and Harriet Tubman, as well as offering an interactive welcome center, exhibits, replica buildings and more.
On November 7, 1861, the Battle of Port Royal Sound raged just off the coast.
Local Confederate forces retreated following the attack and more than 10,000 Union soldiers came ashore and established the Headquarters of the Department of the South on Hilton Head Island. To house the hundreds of abandoned and escaped slaves, called “contrabands of war,” who made their way to Island and to avoid the substandard living conditions found at other Union camps, General Ormsby Mitchel proposed a town for the ex-slaves be built near Drayton Plantation.
Part of the Port Royal Experiment, a program designed to teach the freedmen self-sufficiency, Mitchelville stretched from Beach City Road into Port Royal Plantation. By 1865, the community was home to 1,500 residents living in simple wooden houses on 1/4-acre plots who grew their own food and sold the surplus to the military. The Civil War ended in 1865 and, a few years later, so did large-scale military occupation of the Island. Many Native Islanders left the area to seek a better life. The African Americans who remained were known as Gullah and lived in relative isolation, until a bridge connected Hilton Head to the mainland in the 1950s.
By Allyson Jones. Photo courtesy of www.mitchelvillepreservationproject.com.
For more information on the Mitchelville Freedom Park, visit www.exploremitchelville.org. To sign up for a two-hour narrated tour of 10 neighborhoods established during the Civil War, contact Gullah Heritage Trail Tours at 843-681-7066 or visit www.gullahheritage.com.