By Luana M. Graves Sellars

Back in 2016, Hurricane Matthew was responsible for wreaking havoc on the lush foliage that makes Hilton Head such a beautiful place. As many negatives as Mathew created, including the downing of close to 100,000 trees, several positives came as well. As a result of the massive debris that needed to be coordinated and disposed of, the Town of Hilton Head needed significant acreage to centralize the debris removal operation. That’s where Honey Horn came in. If all of this was before your island time, huge mounds of downed trees were scattered around the property, so that truck after truck could then haul it away. Once the clean-up was completed, restoring the grounds of the Coastal Discovery Museum to its original, pristine condition, began. 

During the process of repairing the damage, FEMA found a slave site and unearthed artifacts and imprints of slave dwellings on the Coastal Discovery grounds. Previously, the museum didn’t have any slave records regarding the property. Once the discovery was made, Matt Sanger, an archeologist from SUNY Binghamton who has been working on other local digs at the Zion Cemetery and Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, made an interesting find. Two years ago, Sanger found what he believed to be slave cabins on a 1850s map in the National Archives. After additional research and using remote sensing, Sanger was able to find an outline of cabins on the property.     

As a result, Dr. Rex Garniewicz, President & CEO of the Coastal Discovery Museum and an anthropologist himself, has begun looking into doing research and an archeological dig to further confirm, eventually highlight and exhibit their findings. According to Garniewicz, “the Honey Horn Slave Project is a vitally important piece of Hilton Head’s history, as well as a significant foundation of our Gullah culture. There are a significant number of our Gullah families that still live on the island and have a direct connection to the slave cabins and any artifacts that are found. Just because the cabins are on our property, does not make the project or its findings ours. We have to tell this story, but in the right way. This is a Hilton Head story, which should be intertwined between [the island’s cultural assets from] Honey Horn to Mitchellville and then the Gullah Museum. At no point should the slave story overshadow Mitchelville’s incredible story of freedom and the Gullah Museum’s story of survival and independence.” 

Even though the Slave Project “is in its infant stages,” Garniewicz is “nervous because it’s such a sensitive project” and he wants to “get a lot of community involvement. We want this story told by the community, in collaboration with Hilton Head’s Gullah community, not by the “museum”. I want to tell the story in an inclusive way that hasn’t been done before.”  

Based on the 1850s map of the property, there are probably 15 to 20 cabins in one particular area that has five rows of three cabins, plus an additional 5 to 7 cabins. Just from the number of cabins alone, it “tells us that there were a significant number of slaves” that were housed there.

In order to make this project inclusive and broad in its scope, Coastal has enlisted the incredible experience and perspectives of Terrance Weik, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Carolina, Columbia to develop the project. 

According to Weik, he “hopes to do it in collaboration with the wider Gullah, Black, and African American community on Hilton Head, by engaging in a dialogue that will lead to a long-term community-based archaeology of Gullah, racial landscapes, and emancipatory African diaspora cultural practices. I hope that we can study how these issues interrelate with Gullah land ownership, place making, ecological relationships, landscapes, and material culture.”

As a member of the Society of Black Archaeologists, and an African descendant who has practiced archaeology for 25 years, he says that “I’m working to address anti-racism in archaeology.”

What’s great about Weik, Garniewicz says, “is that he cares about the meaning of what he does.” He goes on to say that, “this story is not to be forgotten, but it needs to be told in a meaningful way, which means that the whole story needs to be told. The project has the opportunity to leave a lasting effect on our culture and the island. This is a chance for the community to learn more about our culture.”

The project is expected to take at least 5 to 6 years before the first cabin is uncovered and will ultimately highlight what “life was like and its connections to the Gullah community.”

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