Mitchelville supporters fight to preserve 'an American story'

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Mitchelville supporters fight to preserve 'an American story'

By TOM BARTON
tbarton@islandpacket.com
Published Saturday, May 12, 2012   |  1395 Words  |  

In grade school we're taught that Lincoln freed the slaves.

What the textbooks don't say is that on Hilton Head Island, many slaves freed themselves, according to historian Monica Tetzlaff.

Now, a forgotten history is emerging from the shade of oak trees on a sleepy corner of the island. Local scholars, historians and native islanders have banded together to preserve the site where thousands of slaves witnessed the "dawn of freedom."

That place was Mitchelville.

Risking their lives in fleeing to Hilton Head, thousands led an experiment in self-governance that would usher in new rights for the formerly enslaved and forever change the fabric of American society.

They were liberated by federal troops and called "contraband" slaves -- not legally free, but not forced to return to their masters.

In 1862, a year before the Emancipation Proclamation, they won their freedom, and a village sprung up where Beach City Road is today. They elected their own officials, passed their own laws -- including the first compulsory education law in the state -- farmed for wages and bought land.

"As opposed to all other contraband camps, it was the first self-governing community of freed slaves during the Civil War," said Tetzlaff, of Indiana University South Bend's Civil Rights Heritage Center.

"It was proof these former African slaves were interested in self-governance," and their efforts led to the preparation of constitutional amendments that outlawed slavery and gave blacks citizenship and the right to vote, she said.

Now, 150 years after the start of the Civil War, a dedicated group of residents is fighting its own struggle to ensure "da spirit of freedom" of Mitchelville is remembered. The nonprofit Mitchelville Preservation Project is working to build a "freedom park" where part of the village stood.

The 2012 Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce Leadership Class held a ribbon-cutting Thursday to unveil an informational kiosk on the grounds of the planned Mitchelville Freedom Park.

The kiosk tells the story of how those who lived in Mitchelville emerged from slavery and began to search for relatives, build homes and establish churches and a school.

The park and its kiosk presents a golden opportunity for teaching an untold story, said Mitchelville board member Dot Law.

"It's not just a Hilton Head Island story or an African-American story," she said. "This is an American story ... and it saddens me to think the whole story of the development of this beautiful country has not been told. The story of Mitchelville has to be preserved."

HOW MITCHELVILLE HAPPENED

In November 1861, Union troops invaded Port Royal Sound in the largest U.S. naval assault of its time.

Fifteen Union warships bombarded Fort Walker on Hilton Head, routing Confederate troops from the island.

Hilton Head became the headquarters for the federal government's Department of the South and the staging area for a naval blockade that ran from North Carolina to Florida.

Taking advantage of the battles fought around them, slaves fled to freedom behind Union lines.

Hilton Head became their sanctuary.

Africans like Sam Mitchel had labored on the island, cultivating rice, indigo and the Sea Island cotton that made their masters wealthy. All that ended with the roar of cannon fire.

"Dat Wednesday in November (1861) w'en gun fust shoot to Bay Pint (Point) t'ought it been t'under rolling, but day ain't no cloud," Mitchel is said to have recounted, according to the 1993 book "Forgotten History: A Photographic Essay on Civil War Hilton Head Island."

"My mother say, 'Son, dat ain't no t'under, dat Yankee come to gib you freedom,'" wrote Tetzlaff, a contributor to the book.

Native islander Louise Cohen's great-grandfather, William Simmons, escaped to Hilton Head from a plantation on Lady's Island. He enlisted in the 21st U.S. Colored Infantry and settled on Hilton Head after the war.

Her great-great-grandfather escaped from Rose Hill Plantation in a small, wooden, flat-bottom boat launched from present-day Buckingham Landing, near where the Sea Trawler restaurant now stands.

"He escaped with a wife and three children," Cohen said. "The youngest of the three started to cry. The baby would not stop crying. He actually ordered his wife to throw the baby over the boat, because he was not going to let that child come between them and freedom."

Instead, the mother wrapped the child tight and held her close against her to muffle her cries.

"That's how they made it to Hilton Head Island," Cohen explained. "Had she obeyed her husband and thrown that baby overboard, I would not be here today. That baby is my great-grandmother."

The federal army hired the slaves to work in its camps, where they earned $6 to $18 a month as carpenters, blacksmiths, drivers, boatmen and laborers. Others worked as cooks or servants for officers.

Relations between the troops and the islanders, however, soon grew tense.

Racism, sexism, disease, vice and competition for food and supplies quickly necessitated the need to move from tents and crowded barracks to a full-fledged, all-black town, Tetzlaff wrote.

Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel, for whom Mitchelville is named, embarked on a visionary plan -- later known as the Port Royal Experiment -- issuing military orders freeing the slaves and setting land aside to create the village, giving each a quarter-acre plot to grow crops and the chance run their own affairs.

Mitchelville represents the first exercise in black citizenship in America, before the Constitution granted such rights to African Americans, said Mitchelville board member Ben Williams.

"The African slaves on this site in 1862 demonstrated an uncommon courage," he said. "Moments out of slavery, they governed themselves. ... We will tell the story of a freed people voting."

By 1865, the federal government reported that about 1,500 people lived in Mitchelville, according to records.

When the war ended and the Union Army left, many former slaves became sharecroppers and used their earnings to buy property on Hilton Head.

For decades afterward, families of the freedmen lived on the island in near isolation. Their West African traditions became the basis of the Gullah culture that survives today.

THE ROAD AHEAD

The Mitchelville Preservation Project still has a long road ahead before its vision of a "living museum" -- with a monument, replica homes and school, period garden and welcome center -- materializes, interim director Joyce Wright said.

The kiosk is a first step to draw people to the site to learn about Mitchelville's contribution to the nation's "heritage of freedom," Wright said.

Standing in the way is a large, undisclosed price tag to bring to fruition a rough outline developed in 2010 of the proposed multi-million dollar park, said Mitchelville board member Bob Richardson, who is overseeing planning.

The group hopes to use the kiosk to promote its efforts and boost donations needed to pay consultants to develop a business and operating plan for the park. It also plans archeological digs to uncover the foundations of old homes and re-establish the village's street grid, preservation project officials said.

"We hope to hoist the American flag and begin our work anew of what Mitchelville ought to be," Williams said. "We accept and we request assistance."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead

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Mitchelville Preservation Project

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Hilton Head church that saw 'dawn of freedom' for slaves celebrates 150 years: Jan. 26, 2012

Town, county to buy more land for Mitchelville: Jan. 17, 2012

Land trust celebrates dedication of Fort Howell as historic site: Nov. 7, 2011