By Luana M. Graves Sellars

Cover artwork American Gullah By Sonja Griffin Evans

“Good colored people, you have a great work to do, and you are in a position of responsibility. This experiment is to give you freedom, position, homes, your families, property, your own soil. It seems to me a better time is coming … a better day is dawning.”

Union General Ormsby Mitchel

With these words, Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel proclaimed that the land the people of Mitchelville, South Carolina, had once toiled under the chains of slavery was now their own.

—Excerpt from the Mitchelville Preservation Project History

Sometimes in life, big things begin with the simplest of words or the slightest gesture. The story of Mitchelville is just that, a radical idea during a time in our nation’s history when the Union forces were trying to win the Civil War as well as figure out how to deal with a large population of newly freed blacks who were dispersed throughout the South. The Mitchelville blacks who were living on Hilton Head Island lived in a way that was far from common. They created a safe space in the midst of a hostile, life-threatening environment. They became free while being surrounded on all sides by states that were not ready to give up on slavery, and they managed to develop a relatively comfortable, profitable and traditional way of life.

The town of Mitchelville began in 1862 when Gen. Ormbsy Mitchel, a former attorney and professor of mathematics, natural philosophy and astronomy, assumed command of the X Corps and the Department of the South at Hilton Head Island, which became the central location for the Union Army in the South and the launching point for many military operations. 

In 1861, the Union Army had liberated the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and their main harbor, Port Royal. At the sound of the gunboats, white Confederate soldiers, plantation owners and residents fled Hilton Head during the invasion, leaving behind everything — including 10,000 black enslaved people.

Once the Union Army occupied the island, the Port Royal Experiment began. This was a massive humanitarian effort to address the needs of 10,000 newly freed men, women and children. Although the military was in charge, it sought help from Northern charity organizations, which came to the South to help the former slaves become self-sufficient.  The Port Royal Experiment was a program in which former slaves lived and successfully farmed the land abandoned by their former plantation owners. Their success is impressive because they represented a fusion of various African languages and cultures that were collectively known Gullah, or Geechee.

Mitchel issued a military order freeing the slaves on Hilton Head and nearby islands, and providing them with land large enough for a town. In addition, each family was given a plot to grow crops and encouraged to organize their own town.  They were able to buy land, vote and farm for wages. 

The fully functioning town created an organizational structure with its own elected officials, taxes, retail stores and compulsory education for children aged six to 15 — something that had been denied to them as slaves.

The people of Mitchelville were hungry to learn, and after having been denied education for so long, being free to learn to read and write was something that they highly valued. Both adults and children wanted to be educated. This thirst for knowledge led to Mitchelville establishing the first compulsory education law in South Carolina.

Religion played a very important part in Mitchelville because the church was the meeting place for all events and issues that were important to the community. The residents founded two churches: the First African Baptist Church in 1862 and the Queen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1865; both churches still exist today. By 1862, the town had more than 1,500 residents, some of which joined the Union Army. Because of its military importance, access to the town was restricted. Even white people were required to have military passes to enter town limits. Mitchelville was so successful, that Harriet Tubman was sent to Hilton Head to observe the Port Royal Project as a model of future freedman projects in the U.S.

Follow these links for more information about Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, the first self-governed town for freedmen, the Lowcountry Heritage Trail and Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort, SC or Beaufort County |Ground Zero for Our Nation’s Heritage Tourism

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