By Luana M. Graves Sellars
Hilton Head Island’s Historic Gullah Neighborhoods
3. BIG HILL
8. SPANISH WELLS
9. OLD HOUSE CREEK
12. BIG STONEY
13. LITTLE STONEY
14. SQUIRE POPE
Think you’re a Native Islander?
The Lowcountry Gullah population is descended from West African slaves who were forced to work area plantations. But they survived and thrived, and their significant culture and traditions, including their art, crafts, food, music, language and spirituality, are celebrated throughout several distinct Hilton Head Island neighborhoods where Gullah families have called home for seven or more generations.
Recently, signs identifying each historic area have been placed around these Gullah communities, recognizing a place, person or family of significance.
These neighborhoods offer unique insights into the past and present-day entrepreneurial contributions and characteristics of the Gullah people and hold some surprising sports stories. Locals like Coach William Debarr Jr., who was instrumental in molding Gullah children into athletes of character, fostered a community that nurtured several notable professionals and helped sustain a proud people known for their valued skills and self-sufficiency.
Baygall is home to Mitchelville Freedom Park. Located off Beach City Road near the Port Royal Sound, the park commemorates Mitchelville’s founding in 1862 as the first freedman village in the U.S. self-governed by formerly enslaved people. The Historic First African Baptist Church (1862) can be found on the settlement and served as the first house of worship for freedmen, and you can also explore the Queen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church (1865), Saint James Baptist Church (1886) and Drayton Cemetery. There are also remnants of Fort Howell, an earthwork fort built in 1864 by the Union Army’s 32nd U.S. Colored Regiment from Pennsylvania and the 144th New York Infantry to protect Mitchelville from Confederate invasion. Baygall is also notable for its hunting and fishing outlets and for Barker Field, where the former Hilton Head Blue Jays baseball team used to pitch and swing. Baseball Hall of Famer and Cincinnati Reds player Dan Driessen and other notable sluggers got their start there.
It’s a small neighborhood, but during the turn of the 20th century its farming community along Dillon Road produced plentiful crops of island staples, boasting watermelon, sugar cane, sweet potatoes and butter beans. These economic drivers often were shipped to Savannah to be sold at market.
Considered the gateway to Hilton Head Island, Big Stoney was once an active commercial center considered to be Hilton Head’s downtown. The walkable neighborhood offered a variety of stores and businesses, a post office and an elementary school. With deep-water access, Big Stoney was also where several fishing families, including the Stewart and Driessen families, operated their fishing businesses. The Hudson family and the Hilton Head Fishing Cooperative also based their operations and seafood processing in Big Stoney, making the community a major economic hub for the island. Big Stoney is also home to Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals MLB player Gerald Perry. Although Little Stoney is identified as a Gullah neighborhood, most Gullah who live there consider Big and Little Stoney as simply Stoney. Just like Big Stoney, Little Stoney was a thriving area because of its proximity to the commercial center of the island, and the Gullah families who lived there were netmakers and fishermen.
Large tracts of active farmland made Grassland one of the more significant farming communities on the island for several Gullah families who harvested a variety of crops. Grassland was instrumental during the Civil War, as its location was close to a few of the island’s forts – Walker, Howell and Mitchel. As one of the island’s inland communities, the Union Army established a burial ground for nearly 1,500 Union soldiers, including almost 100 Colored Troop Soldiers who served on Hilton Head. Sometimes referred to as Government Cemetery, the area was utilized until the military grave sites were re-interred at the National Cemetery in Beaufort. The cemetery was eventually renamed the White Family Cemetery after a local Gullah family and is now maintained by St. James Baptist Church.
Primarily a farming community owned by the Burkes, Brown, Collier Ferguson and Singleton Gullah families, Chaplin is the southernmost Gullah neighborhood on the island and runs shore to shore between Broad Creek and the ocean where the Burkes, Collier and Singleton beaches are today. As a result of segregation, the Chaplin area was a popular place for Blacks from communities as far as Savannah to come to enjoy the beach. It became a key commercial area in the center of the island with several pavilions and oceanside juke joints, including Burkes Hideaway. Chaplin was also a second home for Black doctors from Savannah, local Gullah families who were skilled in cast-net making and basket weaving and Chitlin’ Circuit performers like Ike and Tina Turner, who performed at the old Bradley Beach Pavilion. A praise house also was located in Chaplin, and around 1887 the historic Gullah Central Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church was formed. The community includes the Joe Pope Cemetery as well as the former site of a one-room Chaplin Elementary School.
One of only three historic Gullah neighborhoods named after Gullah landowners, Gardner is the surname of one of the island’s largest Gullah families. March Gardner, who as a freedman worked for a Union soldier, purchased several large tracts of land making him the largest landowner in Fish Haul and Mitchelville. Several of his descendants, including the Aiken family, continue to live on the land today. The Pinefield/Otter Hole Cemetery, which was originally owned by the Stoney family, is one of nine Gullah cemeteries on the island and is located in Gardner.
Named after formerly enslaved landowner Caesar Jones, who purchased just under 200 acres to provide for his family and future heirs, some of whom still live on the land today, Jonesville was the place to find skilled craftsmen including shoemakers, carpenters and wheelwrights among other types of businessmen and services. Jarvis was named after a small stream that runs into the island and offered a store and church that served area residents.
Marshland is one of the island’s smaller communities. Because of its proximity to the deep waters of Broad Creek, many of the island’s sailboat builders set up shop there. For an island that relied heavily on living off of the local waters for fishing, talented boat makers were critical to families who fished and transported their crops to the mainland, ensuring their sustainability. In 1876 during a federal government tax sale of Marshland property, seven Gullah men from the Brown, Ford, Green, Murray and Robinson families combined funds to make the largest land purchase on the island.
Considered a strong strategic position to defend the island because of its location on the Port Royal Sound, Mitchelville has great historical significance. Prior to Emancipation, the neighborhood, also known as the Town of Mitchelville, was established in 1862 as the first settlement for freedmen in the U.S. As a thriving town under Union Army protection, Fort Howell, Mitchelville was proof the formerly enslaved were capable of becoming self-sufficient. There you’ll find the island’s oldest Gullah church, First African Baptist (1862), which eventually was divided into six historic Gullah churches, and the Cherry Hill School built in 1937. The Gullah community’s oldest and most valued resident, Mother Ethel Rivers, continues to live in Mitchelville. Born in 1918, she is a respected elder and cultural treasure.
Named after Spanish explorers who came ashore on Hilton Head to dig freshwater wells, Spanish Wells is where Charlie Simmons Sr., “Mr. Transportation,” housed his Simmons Fishing Camp where people could rest before or after their journey from the mainland. Prior to the bridge, the island’s primary economic lifeline relied on Capt. Charlie’s trips across the water three times a week that delivered people, produce, seafood and goods. Spanish Wells also was home to the island’s boxing gym, which spawned professional heavyweight boxers, Michael “The Hammer” Cohen, Samson “The Mighty Samson” Cohen and Thomas Cohen, who built the gym. Located near the Calibogue Sound, you’ll also find the Spanish Wells Cemetery.
As the largest historic Gullah neighborhood, Squire Pope runs along Skull Creek as well as inland. Its proximity to deep-water access and the northern shore of the island enabled the Gullah to launch shrimp boats in addition to processing their catch of fish, shrimp and oysters. Since the local waterways were a tremendous economic driver for the island, the area was home to several Gullah boat captains and fishermen who organized a fishing co-operative operated out of what is now called the Sailing and Rowing Center. Proof that the island has been occupied for almost a thousand years is part of what makes Squire Pope unique. Remnants of a Native Indian Green Shell Enclosure, which dates back to 1335, lie close to the northern shore of the island. The only two-room schoolhouse on the island is located at Squire Pope, as well as the fifth Gullah church to be established, Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist (1888).
Old House Creek
As one of the smallest and lesser-known Gullah communities, Old House Creek is located along the tidal creek stretching eastward from Calibogue Sound along the northern edge of the Spanish Wells and Muddy Creek Plantations, dividing them from Honey Horn. Locally, it’s also referred to as Muddy Creek and Sandy Creek.