By Luana M. Graves Sellars
If you haven’t heard about what’s going on at the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park lately, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. The current momentum and growth that the park is experiencing that has been building over the past few years is a direct result of support from former Hilton Head Mayor Bennett, his wife Terri and strong leadership from the Mitchelville Board of Directors.
“This has been a multi-year project that is finally coming to fruition,” says former Mitchelville Board Chair, Peaches Peterson. It all began with “convincing the board that we needed an Executive Director” and after an extensive search, hiring Ahmad Ward to lead Mitchelville to the next level was exactly what the park needed. “Both of the Bennett’s were instrumental in opening the doors of the Town of Hilton Head and Beaufort County.”
The pivotal beginning for the project was when Ahmad presented a $575,000 proposal to the County to institute “a master plan that had skin in the game”, which included bringing on consultant, WLA Studios, who, since then has been able to “take it forward.” The combination of the grant and a community engaged process gave Mitchelville all the “ingredients that it needed to be” on the right path towards success.
Now that the project has its foundational business plan, Mitchelville is working on its strategy of how the project will be moving forward, as well as what can be done to keep it relevant. Like all things, 2020 and COVID-19 have created unexpected challenges and a new way of thinking. Fortunately, Mitchelville has a very “corporate and strategically focused board that is also passionate” as well as an advisory board with strong community connections.
The annual fundraising opportunities and cultural events that the park has become known for had to be put on hold, yet the project was able to create several successful virtual events to maintain a consistent presence with its supporters.
Starting a capital campaign in January and during a pandemic, has been one of the newest challenges. The inclusion of the Compass Group to lead them through a capital campaign beginning this month, will give us “a strategy and formation” as they develop a feasibility study to help them determine their overall financial goals, as well as the long term goal of raising what they expect will ultimately be close to $20 million.
The Board is fully aware that we have a “long road for Mitchelville to move down towards changing the minds and hearts of how valid the project is.” Peaches goes on to say that “people need to be proud of Mitchelville and the perseverance of Mitchellville’s residents.” Because of them, “Mitchelville helped to keep this area alive. Its value is both in a historic and current sense. People persevered in the Mitchelville story, which highlights the struggles and aspirations of African Americans.” This story is “especially important in our time of racial injustice.”
“We believe that Mitchelville is a once in a lifetime story,” adds Ahmad. It’s a place “where African Americans had the opportunity to become citizens and create institutions that continue to exist today,” such as compulsory education “which was a priority.”
Names like Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, Robert Smalls, Secretary of War, Simon Cameron and Abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison all spent time in Mitchelville. “Folks don’t know who was here and the type of VIP’s who came to Hilton Head.”
The Town of Mitchelville may have only lasted for a few short years, however, when it “ended, it had a purpose. In talking to Brent Morris, a Researcher and Historian from USCB Beaufort, Ahmad agrees that “Mitchelville completed the things that it needed to and enabled people to move on to other areas and continue doing the things that they learned. After 1865, when the Union Army left, the economic engine left, and people started looking for separated family members. They left with their skills, an understanding of democracy, the ability and desire to vote and to speak up for their community. Mitchelville was a proving ground for people [especially anti-reconstructionists] who didn’t think that it could be successful.”
“Mitchelville is becoming a premier Black organization on Hilton Head and is working in a laser focused way.” The story of Mitchelville as the first self-governed Town for freedmen is an important part of America’s story and should have a national focus. Mitchelville is a “premier Cultural Heritage attraction that everyone can connect to.” With Peaches adding, “it’s not just an African American story.”
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