Freedmen town on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
In recognition of Black History Month, we want to share the story of our fascinating and poignant visit to Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. Many know Hilton Head as a gorgeous upscale resort island with spectacular white sand beaches, top-tier golf courses, and gated communities. There is much more to this beautiful island, a history we should all learn about.
The rich and turbulent history that occurred on the island during the Civil War played a strategic role in shaping the eventual success of the Union army. The first black troops enlisted in the Union Army were from Hilton Head Island, though they were disbanded just months later.
Another critical piece of history occurred here. Mitchelville was where the first self-governing community in the United States of formerly enslaved people during the Civil War existed. It was a unique and vital experiment predating Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by several months.
It was our third visit to Hilton Head Island; regretfully, we had never heard of this historic site on the first two visits. Thank goodness for Goggle’s search engine advising us what are the top things to do on the island. The Mitchelville Freedom Park is easy to find on the island’s North end. It is the quieter part of the island, consisting of mostly older residential neighborhoods.
Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park Address
40 Harriet Tubman Way, Hilton Head Island, SC 29926
Mitchelville Preservation Project
The hidden coastal town of Mitchelville is coming alive again. With the impressive effort by the Mitchelville Preservation Project, its story is slowly emerging from the shadows of the live oak trees that grace the park. Hilton Head has granted the Mitchelville Preservation Project a lease on 15 acres of land on the coastline north of the island where part of the town once stood. The site has many placards up as well as some replica structures. The Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park offers the public self-guided tours and learning opportunities through lectures, exhibits, tours, and special events. There are also private tours provided 2-3 days a month. To check out their upcoming programs and events, check out their official event page.
The site will expand over time; it is early in its stages of development. Their website states, “With no other site serving as such a template or illuminating the authentic story of the place where freedom began for America’s Black citizens, Historic Mitchelville is uniquely positioned to broaden the awareness and recognition of its rich story. Actions to do so began more than three years ago under the leadership of HMFP’s Board of Directors, setting sights on an activated Park to more broadly attract and inspire visitors and to instill a deeper appreciation for the significance and the peoples of Historic Mitchelville.”
From their site
“The graphic presented provides a comprehensive view of our plans for the Park, including an 18,000 square foot Visitors Center, an Event Lawn, and eight to ten reconstructed houses representing the orientation and clustering of homes at Mitchelville during the historic period. Our vision is to create an imaginative and exciting place that celebrates the American spirit through the telling of the story of the first freedman’s town in America, and that informs and strengthens the fabric of our shared American heritage.”
Let’s start with a bit of history. Union Naval forces and Army expeditionary forces in early November 1861 launched an attack on the Confederacy in Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, between Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina. A Union fleet of about 60 ships and 20,000 men sailed from Fortress Monroe in Virginia and arrived off the Beaufort, South Carolina coast. The Battle of Port Royal was one of the earliest amphibious operations of the American Civil War. The attack on Hilton Heads Confederate Fort Walker and other strategic places began early November 7. 1861. By that afternoon, the Union fleet had fired nearly 3,000 shots at the two forts, and the Confederate forces retreated. With the Union capturing the area, Hilton Head became the southern headquarters for the Union army.
As a result of Union troops capturing Hilton Head, hundreds of “contraband” enslaved people on the island began their long road to freedom. These former slaves were not yet free even with the Union capture of Port Royal, where the term for these former slaves, “contraband of war,” originated. Some Union Generals even allowed Confederate owners to reclaim their “property,” returning many back to slavery. Things, though, were different on Hilton Head Island.
Anti Slavery Voices
The Secretary of the Treasury Department, Salmon P. Chase, was a robust anti-slavery voice in the Lincoln cabinet. He sent Abolitionist Edward L. Pierce to Hilton Head to look into the “contraband” situation. Pierce, in February 1862, found 16 plantations on Hilton Head and at least 600 blacks on the island, many coming from the neighboring Sea Islands. In April 1862, a military order was issued, freeing the blacks from the Sea Islands. Four months later, Lincoln developed his own emancipation plan – officially making the “contraband slaves” freedmen.
In the fall of 1862, Union Army General Ormsby Mitchell claimed 150 acres that would later be named Mitchelville in honor of the General. By March of 1863, the town was built, and it was divided into districts for the election of councilmen by the town’s residents, charged with establishing police and sanitary regulations. In addition, “every child, between the ages of six and fifteen years, residing within” Mitchelville was required to attend school – the first compulsory education law in South Carolina.
By 1865 Mitchelville was a vibrant community that contained from 1.500 to 3000 residents from diverse backgrounds and origins. The houses were often simply built, the residents provided the labor, and the military sawmills provided free lumber. Each home had nearly a quarter of an acre for planting gardens.
“This experiment is to give you freedom, position, homes, your families, property, your own soil. It seems to me a better day is coming…a better day is dawning!”General Mitchel
Living on their own terms
What makes the town of Mitchelville so significant is that these formerly enslaved people could now live on their terms and create their community of political, social, religious, and economic freedom. The newly minted citizens went about their business with elections, enacting various laws, collecting taxes, and making a living. One of this newly freed community’s first priorities was reuniting families. Slave owners often split up families for profit or punishment. Here on Hilton Head Island, these families found each other again and lived in their own homes as a family unit. Adults in the families could walk to their jobs at local forts or towns. Children would attend school and share what they learned with their parents, many of whom had never received any form of schooling.
Free at last: The Civil War Ends
On April 9, 1865, the Civil War ended with the surrender of the Confederate army in Virginia. Celebrations all over Hilton Head began. By this point, word had spread of Mitchelville’s reputation as the first self-sustaining and productive black freedmen’s town. That led to many visits from dignitaries, including Abolitionists Harriet Tubman, William Loyd Garrison, and Theodore Tilton. Garrison gave a rousing speech at the First Black Baptist Church in Mitchelville. John Nicolay, Abrahams Lincoln’s former secretary, was also in attendance. Sadly just days later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
What you will find at the park
The setting at Historic Mitchelville Freedom park is a beautiful wooded area with many stunning Live Oaks. There is an especially large Live Oak near the entry of the park. The educational placards and replica structures are well organized near the main parking lot. There are picnic tables and lots of shade for those who wish to enjoy a picnic. The park sits along the coastline with many trails leading to the marsh’s edge and Fish Haul Creek beach. You will find usually find just a few tourists wandering about. The area is teaming with birdlife, and you may have a chance to spot sea turtles.
A pier is off the main area by the parking lot near the rowboat on display. This pier has a Gazebo on the end of it. It overlooks the marshland with houses, and the ocean is in the distance. It is a peaceful setting.
Further into the park is a path down the beach, where you will find a pier to enjoy the views. Wander a bit past the dock to Historic Mitchelville Beach Park, one of the most natural beaches on the island. This area has restrooms, showers, and other facilities.
We meant only to make a short stop but landed up spending a couple of hours. Having the cutest young black cat follow us from the beginning to the end of our visit slowed us down, as we would stop and pet him often. In the end, it was the story of Historic Mitchelville that so fascinated us. What a gift to learn so much while in such a magnificent setting.
The park is free to enter. Hours of operation are daily, 6 am to 9 pm. There are restrooms on-site and plenty of free parking.
Where to stay when visiting the area
Hilton Head Island has a large selection of hotels and timeshare rentals available. The area can be pricey, though. More affordable accommodations can be found off the island or in nearby Beaufort. The beaches on Hilton Head Island are some of our favorite in the world. The white sand is so firm you easily walk for miles on the beach. What is even more fun? Rent a bike for the day and ride along the edge of the surf. It is such an incredible experience. Below are links for Expedia and Booking.com to find accommodations.
Make a stop at Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park if you are in the area or considering a road trip that passes by Hilton Head Island. You get a beautiful setting with lots to do. Still, most importantly, you will learn about the journey of Historic Mitchelville and be inspired to continue the legacy of the trailblazers of Mitchelville! Once the grander plan is complete, we will return to see the completed project.
To learn more about “Where Freedom Began,” check out the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park website.
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Historic Mitchelville Photo Gallery
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