January 2015

Mitchelville Preservation Project

Author: Lou Benfante

The Mitchelville Preservation Project (MPP) is a non-profit, community-based organization which is dedicated to preserving, protecting, and promoting the heritage of Mitchelville. One of the goals of the MPP is to educate the public about the compelling story of Mitchelville’s inhabitants and their quest for education, self-reliance, and inclusion as members of a free society. Ultimately, the MPP would like to enhance the Mitchelville Freedom Park, which is located in Fish Haul Park on Beach City Road. Plans include erecting replicas of original Mitchelville buildings and an educational learning pavilion. Exhibits, lectures, tours, and cultural programs would be held on the site.

Mitchelville was the first self-governing town of former slaves to be established in this country in 1862. It was located along Beach City Road on Hilton Head Island in close proximity to the U.S. army base at Fort Welles (formerly Fort Walker), which was operating in present day Port Royal Plantation. The community was named for General Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, who set aside some land in what was previously Confederate General Thomas Fenwick Drayton’s Fish Haul Plantation. Mitchel was concerned about the living conditions of these former slaves, known at the time as “contrabands of war.” After the Union Army’s occupation of Hilton Head Island and the departure of the plantation owners the slaves that were left behind, both on the island and on the mainland, began flocking to the fort seeking protection and freedom. Many of them worked at various jobs in the Union fort. The men were employed as carpenters, field hands, blacksmiths, boatmen and laborers. The women contributed their talents as laundresses and cooks. When General Mitchel arrived on Hilton Head Island in September of 1862 the contrabands were living in barracks buildings with communal facilities and no family privacy. The General also felt that the contrabands were being cheated and taken advantage of by the soldiers. When he established Mitchelville, Mitchel proclaimed that the land the people of Mitchelville, South Carolina, had once toiled on under the chains of slavery was now their own.

These are his words:
“Good colored people, you have a great work to do, and you are in a position of responsibility. This experiment is to give you freedom, position, homes, your families, property, your own soil. It seems to me a better time is coming … a better day is dawning.”

The community of Mitchelville was laid out with streets and divided into quarter-acre plots. Lumber was provided to the future residents so that they could construct their homes. They elected their own officials, passed their own laws and had the first compulsory education law in the state of South Carolina, which required all children between the ages of six and fifteen to attend school. By 1865, the population of Mitchelville was about 1,500, and there are approximately 250 homes shown on an 1864 U.S. Government map of the area. The first mayor of Mitchelville was the Reverend Abraham Murchinson, who also served as pastor of the First African Baptist Church. The church was founded in 1862, and its first chapel was erected in Mitchelville.

If you would like to learn more about Mitchelville, several opportunities are available. An exhibit about Mitchelville entitled the Dawn of Freedom: The Freedmen’s Town of Mitchelville was prepared by The McKissick Museum, part of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Carolina. The exhibit consists of storyboards, artifacts, photographs and videos, which explain the reasons for the development of this freedmen’s town and what living conditions were like in the town during the 1860s. The exhibit is on permanent display on the second floor of the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa and is open to the public seven days a week.

The MPP also sponsors a forum and art exhibit each year in October. The art exhibit and contest were sponsored by and held at the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa on the evening prior to this year’s forum. The theme of the artwork was Mitchelville. Seven artists submitted paintings. Noteworthy among the entrants was a Hilton Head Island High School student who took third place. A painting entitled Forty Acres and a Mule earned first place and $1,000 for artist Sonja Griffin-Evans. Her painting is now on display in the Mitchelville Room at the Westin.

This year’s forum was entitled “Life before Mitchelville.” It featured lectures by five renowned South Carolina history professors on what living conditions were like for the slaves prior to the Civil War. Topics included the task system of slavery, the crops that were grown, how the slaves maintained their culture and the religious practices that they brought with them from West Africa. Next year’s forum will continue the history. It will focus on life on Hilton Head Island during the Civil War, the founding of Mitchelville, and the Reconstruction period. 

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