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Hilton Head Island’s Mitchelville: the first freedmen town in the South

Posted By ShoutCarolina,Date: 09.20.2012

A must see free Hilton Head family attraction is Mitchelville Freedom Park historic site located off of Beach City Road across from Fort Howell and Fish Hall Plantation ruins. Mitchelville was the first town in the South during Civil War to be established for the newly freed slaves.

The following historical facts, quotes and pictures are from the Mitchelville historic site interpretive signage.

In November 1861, an impressive Union Navy armada defeated the Confederates at the Battle of Port Royal in less than 5 hours. At the time about 32,000 slaves lived on the island. Many escaped their plantations and fled towards the Union lines on the island and nearby Beaufort. The government labeled them “contrabands”: not legally free but not forced to return to their masters.

What's left of Mitchelville

A month later a reporter for the New York Times on Hilton Head Island wrote: “They are constantly arriving, families together, in dug-outs from the islands at Broad River, bringing all their households effects, and finding shelter at the plantation on the island we occupy.”

Civil War scenes near Hilton Head island

In 1862, Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel planned a town for former African slaves on Hilton Head Island. He died shortly after. The town named in his honor had named streets and homes on ¼ acre lots. Residents contributed to the Civil War efforts and participated in their local government, voting to enact South Carolina’s first mandatory school attendance law.

Helped establish the first freedmen village in the South

“A man named David, from Savannah…arms firmly clasped around the neck of a colored woman, she was clasping him just as firmly, a little boy of about eight…hanging on both. David had found his wife, Lucinda, and his boy, Frank who had been sold away from him, and from which he had not seen in eight long years.” January 18, 1862, The San Francisco Bulletin on Hilton Head Island

Reuniting with families was one of the first concerns of African slaves who escaped to Hilton Head Island. Slave owners could split up families and sell family members for profit or punishment. Immediate and extended families moved into Mitchelville and began creating a community in 1862. Adults walked to jobs in town or nearby Union forts. Children went to school and shared what they learned with their parents. Elders helped by watching children and tending gardens.

Freedmen living on Hilton Head Island in 1862

Mitchelville was the first town in the South to make school mandatory. All children age 6 to 15 attended schools taught by Northern missionaries. Children were only excused if they were needed to help their parents and the teacher approved. Parents were very involved in their children’s education and often chose one school over another if they thought a teacher was better suited to the children’s needs. Parents gave presents to teachers and donated supplies to encourage certain teachers to remain in their community. Schools also offered night classes for adult students.

Simple housing for the freedmen on Hilton Head

“Their meetings are held twice or three times on Sundays, also on the evenings of Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. They are conducted with fervent devotion by themselves alone, or in the presence of a white clergyman when the services of one are procurable. They close with what is called a “glory shout” one joining hands with another, together in couples singing a verse and beating time with the foot” Philadelphia newspaper February 1862

The First African Baptist Church is the oldest continually operating church on the island, established at the same time as Mitchelville. Admission is free.

One of the oldest and still operating black churches in South Carolina

Fighting for freedom and a better future
Union sailor William H. Fitzhugh, recorded as a “first-class boy” in navy records, was one of the first casualties at the Battle of Port Royal. Fitzhugh, an escaped African slave joined the navy at Fortress Monroe in Virginia. He was wounded while on board the Pawnee and died the next day. He was buried with full military honors along with other fallen sailors.

Free and formerly enslaved slaves served with distinction in the Union Navy. By 1865, they made up to 15% of the enlisted men. Their knowledge of local waterways was especially useful to the military

Many former slaves joined the Union forces fighting in South Carolina

Interest in the freedom seekers of Mitchelville led to an out pour of assistance from Northern missionaries and abolitionists. They organized and sent aid and teachers. Newspapers came to document conditions among the refugee slaves. Several notable government officials visited Mitchelville.

Senator Simon Cameron, Secretary of War from 1861 to 1862, visited Michelville after the Civil War as part of a Congressional visit to the South. He attended church and contributed money towards a new chapel, later named in his honor: St. Simons.

Harriet Tubman came to Hilton Head Island in 1862 and worked behind the Confederate lines trying to recruit scouts for the Union army. She led a battle on the Combahee River that freed of over 800 African slaves.

Harriet Tubman led a battle over Combahee River that freed over 800 slaves

The Freedmen’s Bureau
Mitchelville survived past the Civil War. In January 1865, the Mayor, Rev. Abraham Mercherson answered the question “What will they do when the War is over?” He replied: “Go out into the land and make their homes here. Buy 20 acres of land. This is what should be: once settled on his 20 acres, no one can oppress the negro hereafter. But without land, all the teaching, all the philanthropy, all the Christianity of the world cannot save him from the oppression of his selfish neighbor who holds the means of bread in his own hands.”

In March 1865, Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau to oversee housing, education and employment of freedmen. Over the next five years, Congress adopted amendments to the Constitution that outlawed slavery, conferred citizenship and the right to vote to former African slaves. In the Sea Islands many residents remained land owners and politically active. After the war some went on to positions to state government. Others remained committed to the education and civic participation of future generations of Gullah descent.

Thousands of freed slaves came to Mitchelville in search of a better life

Upon the surrender of Confederate forces, ownership of the Sea Islands from the Carolinas to Florida was granted to the freed slaves. For decades afterward, freedmen families lived in near isolation from the rest of the world. Their West African traditions became the foundation for the rich Gullah culture which survives to this day.

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