Mitchelville project keeps past alive


The story is told over and over again. It's a tale of wandering around looking for Mitchelville, taking photos in front of a sign and then heading off in the wrong direction.

It's about spending a few minutes viewing a humble exhibit and wondering what more one might see.

Unfortunately, it's not an amusing anecdote. It is nearly impossible to locate and engage in one of the most valuable features of Hilton Head Island, Mitchelville, where contraband slaves first experienced freedom before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

Today, the times, and the stories, might be changing.

At its March 21 meeting, your Hilton Head Island Town Council unanimously approved an ordinance to enter into a Lease Agreement and Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Mitchelville Preservation Project ( for Fish Haul Creek Park, a portion of the original Town of Mitchelville.

This vote is a grand beginning to uncovering the story and elevating it to its rightful historical significance. Many incredible and talented people are engaged and committed to advance this initiative with vigor. Special thanks to Town staff member Jayme Lopko for her efforts to forward this initiative.

What is in the Lease and MOU and what's next? These agreements will enable the Mitchelville Preservation Project (MPP) to replicate life during the times of Mitchelville at Fish Haul Creek Park while the park remains open to the public.

Preliminary planning concepts were prepared without charge by Mark Baker of Wood + Partners Inc. This Hilton Head Island-based firm will formally contract to work with MPP on both a comprehensive business plan and a master plan to effectively and authentically engage visitors in the history of Mitchelville.

Available funding sources for components of these plans are actively being identified. With the assistance of Rex Garniewicz of the Coastal Discovery Museum, the MPP has established a search for an executive director. These next strategic steps are imperative to the success of the venture.

As with other important Hilton Head Island initiatives, Mitchelville at its roots is all about people. Long before the arrival of modern developers like Charles Fraser there were the Gullah people who became the citizens of Mitchelville. As the MPP website highlights, " decedents of those who settled in Mitchelville still live and continue the traditions of their ancestors."

Unfortunately this is largely unknown. Just look at the recent article in Garden and Gun magazine (April-May 2017, page 22), which identifies a two-day Gullah "immersion in the heritage" that begins in Beaufort and travels to St. Helena to the recently designated Reconstruction Monument sites.

Then it continues to Hilton Head, but only to take a ferry to Daufuskie. No mention of Mitchelville or the Gullah Museum and tours here. In fact, no stop here to visit with the Gullah people.

Now is the time for the story to change to include the chapters that can be told only here by the people whose ancestors lived it.

You too can be a part of this living history. Become an honorary citizen of Mitchelville, and be a teller of this remarkable story.

David Bennett is the mayor of the Town of Hilton Head Island. DavidB@hiltonhead

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