First town for freed slaves could get funds

Some 150 years after Union forces created the first community in the US specifically for freed slaves, the area once known as Mitchelville is again being debated by the powers that be. 

A proposal under consideration by the S.C. Senate includes $200,000 for the Mitchelville Preservation Project on Hilton Head Island. 

The nonprofit group seeking to preserve Mitchelville officially formed two years ago, on the eve of the Civil War sesquicentennial. Plans are to buy plots adjoining a 33-acre beachfront town park toward the nonprofit’s long-term goal of recreating parts of the original town, according to The Associated Press

The former community at the northern end of Hilton Head Island was formed after invading Union Army and Navy troops established headquarters at nearby Port Royal in fall 1861, just a few months after the beginning of the Civil War. 

Federal forces created a safe haven for slaves left behind by plantation owners who fled inland and for slaves fleeing from plantations on nearby islands. 

What was created was a village of between 1,500 and 2,000, named after Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel. 

It included homes built on half-acre parcels, town elections and mandatory schooling. Residents of the self-governing community dispersed after Union troops left in 1868, according to the wire service. 

The residents of Mitchelville supported themselves largely by wage labor for the military, earning mostly between $4 and $12 a month, depending on their level of skill.

Nearly all of the wage jobs Mitchelville ceased when Federal forces departed in 1868, and residents were forced to switch to a subsistence farming-based economy, with many forming farming collectives, joining together to rent large tracts of land from the government.

Documents show that many of the Hilton Head Island freedmen experienced an extreme shortage of food when the military departed the island, according to Michael B. Trinkley and Lori Hacker of the Chicora Foundation.

“Mitchelville is not a story of slaves. It is not a story of the black community,” said Randy Dolyniuk, treasurer for the preservation project. “It’s a story of American history, of Americans who earned their freedom and learned how to govern themselves.” 

The money for Mitchelville is among a list of $4 million worth of projects for private nonprofits and local governments proposed for removal by some Republicans. However, Davis, a noted fiscal conservative, said Mitchelville is worthy of state assistance in telling the story of citizens’ shared heritage. 

“Hilton Head is not just beaches and resorts and golf courses,” the Beaufort Republican said. “It’s also the site of a compelling story of people seeking to be free.” 

Davis said he hopes Mitchelville will eventually become a living history tourism attraction akin to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. 

Still in its early stages, the project has no timetable for completion. The research and archaeological digs will likely continue indefinitely, Dolyniuk told The Associated Press. 

“That spirit of freedom is something that can really get its hooks into you. The more you look into it, the more you want to learn,” said Dolyniuk, whose great-great-great grandfather was a Confederate soldier from Georgia.

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