Gullah Museum in Hilton Head

How to study Black stories in the Lowcountry

Black history is all around

February means southern sea breezes have a slightly warmer undercurrent, and the northern hemisphere is holding its breath for the winter malaise to lift. While this month marks another step closer to a warmer time of year, February holds a far more significant meaning as it is a symbolic month for celebrating Black history. As is true across all communities in the Americas, Black people have shaped the Lowcountry into the culturally rich and thriving land we know today. While change over time will always chisel communities into new forms, February is the perfect month to take a pause and look back at the history of the people upon whose shoulders Hilton Head, Daufuskie, Beaufort and beyond were built. Whether you are a lifelong local or passing through for a visit, check out six of the area’s Black history learning centers that honor the heritage of the Black people whose stories have defined our past and continue to write our future.

Gullah Museum - Hilton Head Island, SC
Photo by: Lloyd Wainscott

Gullah Museum

Go there: 12 Georgianna Drive, Hilton Head

History: The Gullah Museum supports Gullah customs, traditions, language, stories, songs and structures on Hilton Head Island. The museum itself consists of restored Gullah houses that show a snapshot of life on the island before the bridge was built connecting it to the mainland. The museum aims to provide context and understanding of how the Gullah people influenced the formation of Hilton Head’s culture and continue contributing to it today. Through storytelling and historical preservation, the museum is an active presence on the island by hosting annual Gullah food festivals, cultural camps, oyster roasts and a family fun day. By hosting events for the whole island community to come together, the Gullah museum establishes itself as a core feature of Hilton Head, infusing community events with Black culture so the food, language, teachings and songs of the island’s Gullah people never become extinct. Its leaders are passionate about sharing their people’s history and passing the stories of their ancestors from one generation to the next.

Gullah Heritage Trail Tour - Hilton Head Island, SC
©Lloyd Wainscott

Gullah Heritage Trail Tour

Go there: Coastal Discovery Museum, Hilton Head 

History: Gullah Heritage Trail Tours explore the authentic culture of the Sea Islands Gullah. Rooted in West African traditions, customs, beliefs and art forms that enslaved peoples brought with them when they were trafficked to the Americas, modern Gullah culture has worked to preserve African linguistic and cultural practices throughout their lifestyles. Gullah Heritage Trail Tours bring to light the values of the Gullah culture across Hilton Head Island through the words of the guides, all of whom come from Gullah heritage. Their unique points of view showcase how the history of the Gullah people is alive and continuing to grow along the islands that gave rise to their unique cultural blend of practices, values and dialects. Tours take guests through Gullah family compounds on the island such as Squire Pope, Chaplin, Stoney, Spanish Wells and Jonesville, the names of which might remind you of streets and neighborhoods you see today. The tour will point out the old debarkation point, the one-room schoolhouse, the plantation tabby ruins and wrap up at the first freedom village historic marker. Coming from the voices of those with direct ancestral ties to those whose stories they are telling, Gullah Heritage Trail Tours honor the beautiful culture that Black islanders made out of horrific circumstances. 

Heritage Library - Gullah
©Heritage Library

Heritage Library

Go there: 2 Corpus Christi, Hilton Head

History: A slightly more academic way of engaging with Black history, the Heritage Library on Hilton Head is a nonprofit library specializing in ancestral research and historical documentation. The library prides itself on being a resource for building both historical and personal connections. Featuring written resources, maps and photographs documenting Hilton Head’s history, the library is a hotspot for uncovering either one’s personal lineage or for exploring the genealogy of the communities that established the island. Offering classes, lecture series and tours, the Heritage Library can help you travel back in time by decoding facts from primary sources. The Heritage Library also owns and maintains the sites of Fort Mitchel and St. Luke’s Parish Zion Chapel of Ease Cemetery. The former was a Union fort that ultimately saw no action during the Civil War; the latter is the location of the first chapel built on Hilton Head and still houses its oldest existing structure, the Baynard Mausoleum.

Hilton Head History Tours
©Lisa Staff

Hilton Head History Tours

Go there: Fish Haul Beach Park, Hilton Head

History: Led by local historians in the form of a three-hour bus tour or a private group tour, Hilton Head History Tours span the history of the island from its ecological roots to the more recent history of its commercial development. The guides of these tours approach historical storytelling by encouraging visitors to use places as a catalyst for imagining the people whose lives changed at that spot. While touring the island via motor coach, guests will stop at the Mitchelville Town Site, explore the Stoney Baynard Ruins, visit the Honey Horn Plantation and see several Civil War-era forts. An ongoing project at the Coastal Discovery Museum uncovered evidence of enslaved peoples’ dwellings and artifacts on the former plantation’s grounds. Anthropologists associated with the museum are collaborating with Hilton Head’s Gullah population, emphasizing that the story is not the museum’s to tell, but, rather, the community’s. In stopping by so many sites that tell the story of the island’s Black inhabitants, Hilton Head History Tours will help visitors situate particular events within the timeline of the island’s geological, social and cultural history.

Reconstruction Era National Historical Park
©National Park Service

Reconstruction Era National Historical Park

Go there: 706 Craven St., Beaufort

History: Comprised of four networked sites of Brick Baptist Church, the Penn Center, the Camp Saxton Site and the Old Beaufort Firehouse, the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park offers guided tours of a few locations in South Carolina that showcase the tumultuous nature of American history between 1861 and 1900. In theory, Reconstruction promised Black Americans integration into the social, political and labor systems that had subjected them to oppression and racial injustice. In practice, Reconstruction saw legally granted rights suppressed through institutional abuses and staunch ideologies. The sites preserved through this historical park stand to memorialize the places where formerly enslaved people fought for freedom and advocated for their rights in a time when countless forces were working against them. The Penn Center, designed around the campus of the former Penn School, marks one of the nation’s first schools for formerly enslaved people. In the 1960s the Penn Center was the only location in South Carolina that provided sanctuary to interracial groups, including the Southern Leadership Conference, the Peace Corps and even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while segregation was still prevalent. Today a visit to this National Historical Park can guide you through the complex history of Black South Carolinians who lived through segregation while advocating for reform, education and equality. 

Mitchelville Freedom Park
©Arno Dimmling

Mitchelville Freedom Park 

Go there: 40 Harriet Tubman Way, Hilton Head 

History: In September 1862 Gen. Ormsby Mitchel arrived at Hilton Head Island to find a large population of formerly enslaved people living in refugee barracks on the island. The Port Royal Experiment that built schools and created freedmen’s aid societies had made some traction across the Sea Islands, but Gen. Mitchel saw an opportunity for formerly enslaved people to govern themselves and to be “useful, industrious citizen[s].” Mitchelville became the first self-governed town for the formerly enslaved, featuring a series of homes built by and for the island’s Black inhabitants. With a mayor, councilmen and a treasurer, Mitchelville was a highly functioning town that even established the first compulsory education law in South Carolina. Today the remains of Mitchelville have become a cultural attraction for people all over the world. Over the next few years park leaders plan to create replicas of historic homes, churches and stores to give visitors the most immersive experience possible to impress the crucial role the inhabitants of Mitchelville played in demonstrating their rights to freedom, education and citizenship by taking a single opportunity and turning it into a thriving community that benefited all. On February 4 celebrate the Annual Freedom Day Celebration at Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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