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A struggle is brewing in a small, plain corner of Hilton Head Island where some say the future of this resort community is coming into conflict with its past -- or at least what's left of it.'
Almost 150 years ago, beachfront property on Hilton Head wasn't million-dollar mansions and hotels. Near the shores of Port Royal Sound stood the island's first planned community: small, wooden shacks on quarter-acre lots, divided by streets, interspersed with stores, built by and for former slaves living on the Union-occupied island. '
It had a town government, trash collection and the first compulsory education program in South Carolina.'
The town was Mitchelville, the country's first town for freed slaves that came to being in the years surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation. Created by Gen. Ormsby Mitchel, it was called an "experiment in citizenship." At its peak, it's estimated to have had about 1,500 residents.'
It's a story Civil War buffs in the area know well -- and one that has immense national significance for the post-slavery history of black Americans, they say.'
But Mitchelville vanished with time, and the land melted into the rest of the mostly barren backdrop of Hilton Head, soon to be coveted by hunters and developers, golfers and vacationers. The land has been split off, built up, sold, resold and eyed for different kinds of developments.'
The historical significance of the area is denoted by not much more than a 29-word historical marker sign along Beach City Road.'
Now, with undeveloped land on the island growing scarce and rumblings of imminent development on the remaining former Mitchelville site growing louder, some residents say if someone doesn't act fast to preserve the area and make an effort to mark its significance, the history could be buried forever under the weight of timeshare units and vacation condos.'
"This was never a crisis until the developers came along," said Peter Ovens, an island resident who is pushing for more town involvement in the preservation. "Now it's a crisis."'
Ground zero for the effort to save Mitchelville may become Jerre Weckhorst's house, a sturdy wooden replica of a general's house from Fort Walker, a Union post on the island.'
He built it about 20 years ago, lifting details from a photo in Charles Fraser's personal library.'
"Everything in here came out of the photo," Weckhorst said.'
The house, in a wooded, hidden corner of land off a dirt path off Dillon Road, sits on a portion of the old Mitchelville site. But to hear Weckhorst tell it, the house really sits at a nexus point of history.'
His property abuts other tracts of undeveloped land, most of which have been relatively untouched since the days of Mitchelville. On the grounds of the properties, he's found a wealth of artifacts from the mid-19th century and earlier, everything from tools to beer bottles to pottery, many of which once belonged to former slaves. And that's just the stuff he found cleaning up the property.'
Though Weckhorst and his wife Nanci live in the house, local supporters pushing for greater Mitchelville recognition have a long-range plan that centers on their replica.'
The plan would work like this: The town, or other preservation interests, would buy the several properties between the house and Fish Haul Creek Park, a large chunk of the Mitchelville site already under the town's control. The Weckhorst house, already decorated like an amateur Civil War museum, would become the focal point for a black history museum. Other structures could be built highlighting black history on Hilton Head, from the Mitchelville days through modern Gullah culture, creating a walk through time for the history of black residents on the island.'
For supporters, the dream is in the vein of a Colonial Williamsburg, where historic restoration aims to bring the past to life. If all worked according to plan, the Mitchelville site would turn into a must-see attraction for any traveling history buff.'
But first, they need the property. And even before that, they need money. And that is likely to be where the problem is.'
"I think that's going to be probably one of the major stumbling blocks," said James Mitchell, president and CEO of the Native Island Business and Community Affairs Association, who has pushed the idea of a black history museum on the island for some time. "Some of the details we're going to have to work out."'
Weckhorst said he's willing to sell his property for use as a historical site. But he can only do so much toward the larger preservation of the land.'
"It would take a little bit more than I have means to do," he said. "I've got it started, but it's going to take a lot of community (involvement) to do."'
The fight for Mitchelville could come down to a race between preservationists and developers to see who can entice the landowners in the area to sell to them first.'
Andre White, whose family owns some of the land in the area, is looking at a development project for the properties, said David Staley, a local real estate agent and developer whose projects include the Old Carolina golf course community in Bluffton. Staley, Whites' employer, declined to comment further on the project, and White did not return calls to his cell phone last week.'
Development has threatened the area in the past. A chunk of the site is taken up by The Spa on Port Royal Sound, a 268-unit condominium complex built in 1984. Most recently, the town in 1998 threatened to condemn about 17 acres of land in what later would become part of Fish Haul Creek Park to stop a developer from building 121 time-share units. The town, which reached an agreement to buy the land, said it acted to preserve the historical value of the Mitchelville area, but the builder accused the town of acting only to block development. The park, totaling 31-acres with access to Port Royal Sound, opened last spring.'
"We certainly have an interest in preserving as much of Mitchelville as possible," Mayor Tom Peeples said. "Being the first freedman's village in America is really a rather important milestone I think."'
The problem, Peeples said, is that, though the town has a fairly aggressive land-buying program, officials don't want to lean on property owners too strongly to get them to sell, so they are dependent on the open market.'
But progress is being made. Russ Marane, who handles the town's land buying for the Trust for Public Land, said he's made contact with six property owners in the area that are part of Mitchelville. At least two developers have started talking to some of those owners as well, Marane said, and three owners have said they might be interested in selling to the town -- a good start.'
"If they're looking for the best buck, we're not their buyer," he said. "A willing property owner generally is someone who shares the same interest we do.'
"If it's all about money, most of the time we're not competitive with what a developer will pay for property."'
He said he's also working on identifying other properties that may be part of Mitchelville for potential purchase.'
"One of things I've got to do is get a better understanding of where the history is down there before we expand our property search beyond the six," he said.'
The burden to buy the land might not fall solely on the town, Marane said. Federal grants or historical foundations with interest in the site could be tapped to help acquire the property. Mitchelville has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1988.'
News of the progress has been a long time coming for some.'
"I think there is some surprise that nothing more has been done to get that type of project off the ground and have something more substantive other than just the historical marker down there on the site," Mitchell said. '
"I hope that in 2006 we'll get something more substantive moving."'
Town officials and leaders in the black community on the island share one concern: a sense of incredulousness that no one has stepped up to preserve this land before. But they differ on where the blame is.'
Some in the community say the town hasn't made Mitchelville a priority at any point in its 20 years of existence, thereby letting it fall by the wayside in local history.'
"It's a phenomenon that this site is almost untouched," said Emory Campbell, the former director of the Penn Center on St. Helena and a longtime advocate for native islanders. "I don't find a lot of people who really know about Mitchelville. We very seldom on the national level hear about Mitchelville."'
But some in the town say support in the community has been surprisingly lackluster over the years. In 2002, when the town hosted a 140th anniversary event featuring descendants of Gen. Ormsby Mitchel, Peeples said turnout was strong, but not nearly as heavy as he expected.'
"I don't think as many people know about or understand the historical significance of Mitchelville as you might think," he said. "It doesn't seem to get the fanfare you might think it would."'
Town manager Steve Riley said talk about preserving the area came out of discussions on a 1995 Regional Urban Design Assistance Team report that was critical of what it called the town's lack of attention to native islander areas. But town residents weren't enthusiastic about the idea, he said.'
"Now suddenly we can't do enough," he said. "There hasn't been a great concern in the black community that I've seen. I've always been surprised by it. I don't understand it."'
It's also unclear at this point how the town would juggle creating a new historical area while it's attentions are focused on getting the Coastal Discovery Museum up and running at its expanded Honey Horn location. At one point there was talk about incorporating a black history museum into the Honey Horn site, but supporters said it's important for it to be on the original Mitchelville land.'
Though the town has tackled other issues of importance to the native islander community recently, such as sewer service and redevelopment, Mitchelville hasn't been on the council's recent priority lists.'
"This is beginning to surface. There's hope," said Councilman Bill Ferguson, the only black member of the Town Council, who said other town pledges to protect the area have resulted in nothing more than lip service. "What we need to do is really get the ... so-called native islander community up again and basically fighting for their heritage, for our heritage."'
For now, town officials said they might just have to wait to see who will sell their property for its historical value instead of seeking the highest dollar from developers. But for the preservationists who worry Hilton Head will be remembered only for time shares and golf courses, waiting may not be enough.