Lowcountry Gullah
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A Tale of Two Mayors

By Luana M. Graves Sellars

Sometimes we forget to pay attention to the everyday things that surround us; the things that create a familiar backdrop for our lives. We don’t often ask ourselves about the design of our community, or who planted that tree or why those statues are honoring people with names that we’ve never heard of. We also tend to ignore all of the “cultural stuff,” even though we know that someone decided long ago that it was important. 

However, when we do take the time to think about these things, and do a bit of homework, it’s the story behind the story that holds our interest; it’s the back stories can make everyday objects come to life because, when we take a peek behind the curtain of past events, we learn the rationale for decisions made long ago. When we have a context for understanding the things around us, we gain a depth of understanding and knowledge that can increase our appreciation for things we’ve usually taken for granted. 

In my article about the Heritage Tourism Task Force, I outlined the plans for a Lowcountry Heritage Trail, which would create connectivity between historic sites in Hilton Head, Bluffton, Port Royal and Beaufort. The amazing historical richness of this area begs for the opportunity to tell of the complex and vital role that it played in America’s history. For example, the haunting beauty of the lowcountry has to be seen alongside the painful story of American slavery which was both a cultural foundation and an economic engine for the entire state of South Carolina. 

The lowcountry became the dawn of freedom for an entire race of people, as well as the place former slaves first experienced life as self-governing freed men and women prior to Emancipation. It’s also the site of post-slavery Reconstruction which was often repressive, as well as the site that inspired grassroots initiatives that sparked the Civil Rights era in the 1960’s. 

The lowcountry’s contributions to American history are complex and significant, and bringing this history to the national stage requires leadership that moves beyond rhetoric. It means moving beyond “just talking” about what a great idea this is, and being willing to do the hard work of turning visions into reality. 

The following is a tale of two former mayors who are motivated by their love of the lowcountry and a commitment to reinvigorating history, to move beyond rhetoric to do the hard work of making the dream of a nationally prominent Lowcountry Heritage Trail a reality. Connecting the historic sites in Hilton Head, Bluffton, Port Royal and Beaufort is their goal, because among other things, it will transform the way people think about, and value, the lowcountry, and bring economic benefits to the entire area.  Both mayors are passionate about having the stories from the past told honestly. This includes telling the good, bad and ugly parts of the lowcountry’s story because they agree that it is important to embrace all of it. 

David Bennett –  Former Mayor of the Town of Hilton Head

Former Hilton Head Mayor
David Bennett

Prior to David Bennett becoming Mayor, the Town of Hilton Head did not have the island’s cultural assets among its priorities. With the support of citizens and the passion to make a difference, Mayor Bennett is working to create a cultural legacy on Hilton Head that will impact future generations. Simultaneously, he is “developing a vision for Mitchelville commensurate with its significance.”  He goes on to explain his motivation

“I first learned of Mitchelville, the first freedman’s town in America, a few years after moving to Hilton Head Island. It is a tremendous story of national and potentially international significance about a special people embracing an extraordinary undertaking.  Many of our own Native Islanders are descendants of those courageous people, who witnessed firsthand, the day when slavery turned to freedom.  The story of Mitchelville is central to the true identity, heritage and uniqueness of Hilton Head Island.  Yet, going into 2015, my first year as mayor, it continued to be represented by a few underfunded non-profits and a mostly unused piece of Town-owned land, clearly a missed opportunity.  My vision is for multiple trails and interpretive centers throughout Beaufort County. These organized interactions would insure the legacy of our Lowcountry by telling the “stories” of our past to residents and visitors alike.  I envision:

Santa Elena, telling the story of European Exploration and Settlement, Penn Center, telling the Gullah Geechee and Reconstruction stories, Beaufort and Port Royal telling the story of Reconstruction, Hilton Head telling the stories of the Civil War and Mitchelville. Because Mitchelville is so very special and unique and possesses such extraordinary opportunity, my vision for it remains open to magnification.  

Hilton Head’s role will include collaborating with our partners around the county, their respective Chambers and heritage organizations in order to realize the potential of our collective heritage assets and enhance educational opportunities for our residents.  If we know who we are and where we come from, in this instance most predominantly for our Native Islanders, our Gullah, then we become a stronger community as a whole and we carry the heritage, the legacy, the stories with us wherever we may go.  And Hilton Head should promote heritage and cultural tourism, which interestingly is becoming a high priority for visitors nationally and internationally.  Finally, Hilton Head’s role should include providing the appropriate level of investment into our heritage assets. The time has come to move forward with efforts to nationally highlight our heritage. If it’s worth a trip to the President’s desk, it’s worthy of our attention.”

Billy Keyserling – Former Mayor of the Town of Beaufort

Former Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling

It was a cloudy day that I sat down with former Mayor Keyserling, who wasn’t feeling well because of a cold. Billy, as I was told that everyone calls him, probably was close to feeling miserable, but how he felt had no effect on our conversation. His dedication to making sure that history is told, and that it is accurately depicted, neutralized his cold symptoms as he conveyed his passion for the subject. For Keyserling, this passion for lowcountry history is connected to his being a third-generation Lithuanian immigrant. According to Keyserling, his first recollection of how important this area is to American history came from his own family’s involvement in Reconstruction. 

“I have had reconstruction on my mind since I was a child. Early on, I knew then that history had not been fully told. 

Former Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling

When my grandfather was 18, he was on the verge of being taken in by the tsar in Lithuania. Able to escape, he came to the US and was interested in farming. The problem was, that the lower east side of NYC was not a place to farm. Eventually, he made his way to Beaufort, took up farming and became very successful. My grandfather was here during the time that Reconstruction was having its problems. Well respected in the community, he became one of the first board members at the Penn School, and he was one of the first local people to serve on the board. 

My father, was one of only six doctors in the area. His practice served the people who would otherwise not get medical attention in the area. Like his father, he was also on the board at Penn. While growing up, I sat in on some of the meetings and spent a lot of time at Penn Center. 

Being around all that was going on motivated me to do a lot of my own research on slavery.  The more I studied Reconstruction, the more I learned that the story has never been told fully.  It’s been on my mind for a long time since then. The story that’s here is a very important one. The way that history has been written is incomplete. Textbooks need to be re-written and the chapters that have blank pages should be filled. If we do nothing else, we should do that.”

There are two time-worn adages that are appropriate here: “Everything happens for a reason,” and “No two people cross paths by accident.” With that in mind, it goes without saying, that these two Mayors have different roots, and their passion for lowcountry history comes from very different places, and yet, they are on the same track, and both are powerfully motivated to do the hard work of making the Lowcountry Heritage Trail a reality. Recently, national federal recognition has confirmed that the lowcountry has a rich and important past, and deserves a prominent place in American history. Clearly, many important stories have been undervalued or ignored or misrepresented in history books. The realization of a Lowcountry Heritage Trail would be an important step in making sure that the history of the lowcountry is told honestly and completely. With Mayor David Bennett and Mayor Billy Keyserling standing firmly behind the initiative, there is little doubt that in due time, the powerful story of the lowcountry will attract the attention of the nation and the world.

For more information about Hilton Head as ground zero for the Heritage Trail click here

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