Mitchelville: The hidden town at dawn of freedom
- 29 February 2012
- From the section Magazine
As Black History Month in the US and Canada draws to a close, the little-known story of the first free black town established during the Civil War is being rediscovered and re-told - casting a new light on the end of slavery in America.
In a sleepy corner of the island resort of Hilton Head in South Carolina, the odd clam digger or tourist shuffles through Mitchelville oblivious to its past.
Yet the mostly empty coastal town hides a secret history, which is only now emerging from the shadows of its oak trees.
Mitchelville housed the first self-governing community of freed slaves during the Civil War - a unique and at the time revolutionary experiment predating Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation by several months.
It was the humanitarian vision of one man - triumphant Union Army general Ormsby Mitchel - at a time when slaves were considered "contraband of war".
Now, 150 years after the chains of slavery were ripped off, local campaigners, historians and scholars are fighting to preserve this forgotten site.
There are plans for a permanent, national "freedom park", a heritage and educational centre, archaeological digs, genealogy research, statues, and replicas of the "freedmen's" cottages, school and prayer house.
Mitchelville Preservation Project, a non-profit organisation, wants Gen Mitchel's actions honoured, and recognition for the slaves who risked their lives fleeing to Hilton Head.
Two campaigners with more reason than most to take an interest are Priscilla Mitchel and Johnnie Mitchell - women drawn together by their shared history and friendship.
Priscilla, 53, is the direct descendant of Gen Mitchel, after whom the town is named, and Johnnie, 65, the direct descendant of slaves he freed. Their shared names are no coincidence.
"Ex-slaves tended to take the names of good white people who had been nice to them," explains Johnnie, whose husband's slave ancestors were named after the general.
"Meeting Priscilla was like meeting family, family that I didn't know but loved and cherished, we just bonded as sisters."
The pair, who back the plans to restore the cultural landmark, have been struck by the general's charity and sacrifice.
"I definitely credit everything, my life situation, my children's good fortune, my family, to General Mitchel - that's why I'm passionate about it, because one person can make a difference," says Johnnie.
"How did he get to have such a compassionate understanding about the plight of black people when he was born a Southerner and when everyone had such a complex about superiority?
"I would have to call it a miracle. He was also very smart, I think that had a lot to do with it."
Priscilla, from Connecticut, says her relative gave his life for the freedom of others - he died of Yellow Fever 18 months after establishing Mitchelville.
"I've been a public school teacher for years and worked a lot in social justice issues, so I'm so proud of him - he's my hero," she says.
"He saw Africans and other people as equals when they were mostly looked down upon... they deserved a house with a fence and garden, and that's what he gave them."
After Hilton Head's fall to Union troops in 1861, the island's slaves were joined by hundreds more from surrounding areas who escaped, often at great risk, in search of freedom.
The army housed them in barracks at first, but conditions became so overcrowded that by 1862 Gen Mitchel decided to embark on his visionary plan - later known as the Port Royal Experiment.
He issued a military order freeing the slaves from Hilton Head and nearby islands, then set land aside to create a town, giving each a quarter-acre plot to grow crops and run their own affairs.
They were able to buy land, vote, farm for wages, and grow sweet potatoes and greens which provided vital supplements to their diets.
There were elected officials, taxes, street cleaners, stores selling household goods, and crucially, compulsory education for children aged six to 15 - the first law of its kind in South Carolina.
Prof Monica Tetzlaff, a historian from the Civil Rights Heritage Center at Indiana University, says: "Keeping their children out of the fields and in school was absolutely crucial.
"Missionary teachers reported a warm welcome, food from the people even when they didn't have enough, and help in keeping the school buildings repaired."
She says being able to grow food, rather than living in tents and depending on rations, was the difference between malnutrition and health.
Many of the 1,500 freed slaves living in Mitchelville worked for the Union Army on rice and cotton plantations for around $4 to $12 a month.
But payments were often late and many newly free African Americans resented doing the same work they had done under slavery.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, and the Union Army left, many former slaves became sharecroppers - growing their own crops on plantation owners' land, but giving a proportion back to them in return for seed and equipment.
For Johnnie Mitchell's ancestors, it was a chance to buy property on Hilton Head using the wages they had earned.
The university-educated author, who now lives in Charleston, only began learning about her past 20 years ago, and says her ancestors left her few clues.
"When my family got their freedom, there was no time to remember, and no-one wanted to hold on to such harsh memories. Survival became the only interest," she says.
"People were not allowed to teach slaves how to read and write and keep records, so when freedom came, a door was shut to the past. We're now just learning our history.
"Growing up, education was just as important as the air we breathed or the food we ate. I couldn't understand where that came from, but when I did the research it all made sense."
Prof Tetzlaff says the new freedom park will become a tourist destination for people around America and the world.
"If we don't learn the history of places like Mitchelville, we do not understand the reasons why race relations are the way they are in America," she says.
"Touching the ground made sacred by all the lives of the enslaved and freed people that laboured, suffered, rejoiced and died there, is more meaningful than a paragraph in a text book."
Ben Williams, from the project's education committee, adds: "All young people from kindergarten to 12th grade ought to hear stories like this, that is what will bring us together in this country."