by Luana M. Graves Sellars

Artwork by Sonja Griffin Evans

Hilton Head Island evokes thoughts of paradise, a relaxing leisurely place to vacation or the opportunity to reside where beautiful sandy beaches, varieties lush landscapes sprinkled with live oak trees dripping with graceful Spanish moss are taken for granted. Hilton Head promises tourists and homeowners a special quality of life, and it does not disappoint. However, Hilton Head is important and unique for reasons that go beyond its surface beauty. To understand this, we must take a careful look at Hilton Head’s past.

What is increasingly apparent is that Hilton Head played an important part in the history of the region, and in the history of the country. It has a story to tell that is rich and complex about its original people and its culture that is still being revealed in surprising and inspiring ways. The Hilton Head story is about war and peace and slavery and freedom. And it is a story about the survival of a people against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Hilton Head’s social and cultural history dates back to the early 1700s, and from the beginning, the Gullah people were central to the story. Enslaved, and then abandoned by plantation owners fleeing the Union army, they not only endured their circumstances, they displayed the intelligence, fortitude and survival instincts to maintain and develop a culture and a community that is vibrant, and rich in traditions that are alive today. Their lives involve pain and suffering, but also courage and a fierce determination to survive and prosper as free, educated, self-governing people. Long suppressed and undervalued, the history of the Gullah people in Hilton Head is being more fully explored. Their inspiring story is an important part of what makes Hilton Head unique and beautiful in a different way.

Nationally, February is called Black History Month. Here on Hilton Head, February is also called Gullah Celebration Month. It’s a time when the island commemorates and celebrates the importance of the Gullah people, their culture and the enduring significance of Mitchelville, one of the first examples of self-governance by self-emancipated former slaves. Here on Hilton Head, the Gullah spirit is alive and vibrant, and adds texture and depth to the beauty of the place called Hilton Head Island.

Journey with me into a perspective of Hilton Head Island’s past that is rich in untold stories that were not considered important. These stories weren’t deemed as valuable or worthy deserving of being repeated or retold in our textbooks. These stories are about some of the important many people that are the individual fibers, which make up our community into what it is today. Their stories are woven into the threads of past; which means that these stories are part of the foundations to our future.

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