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Local Roots: Cora Miller

Island resident Cora Miller is sharing the life of Harriet Tubman.

Story by Luana Graves Sellars + Photography by Lisa Staff

If you weren’t aware, Harriett Tubman walks around Hilton Head every day. Sure, she was physically here around the Civil War years in Historic Mitchelville, but her words and legacy continue to live on through local resident Cora Miller’s incredible transformation whenever the inspiration strikes. For years, when the character Harriett Tubman is included in an event, whether it’s during February’s Annual Gullah Celebration, special church events, or giving tours and presentations at Mitchelville’s Freedom Park, it’s been Cora Miller who brings her to life by recreating her voice and sharing poignant stories about her life’s experiences.

Cora Miller channels the most well-known conductor of the Underground Railroad, Harriett Tubman, to teach us about her life and the role she played in the Lowcountry during the Civil War.

What’s different about her depiction of Harriett is that she doesn’t work from a prepared script or materials. Cora explains that “history books only talk about Tubman freeing the slaves. I believe that God has placed her spirit in me to be a vessel for her to tell the stories that were never told.” Unlike most character representations, Cora makes the experience more personal by intertwining names of her relatives into her skits.

Her passion and personalization is evident in how her audience reacts. “I touch people when I do Harriett Tubman. They see me transform into her and that touches them. I’ve seen men and women cry after hearing more about what she has done. You never hear the same story twice, because I am only the vessel. I pray before each time and then the words just flow. I don’t hear or see me,” she says.

Embodying Harriett Tubman is only the beginning of Cora’s creativity and talents. She’s also known locally as a creative and vocal artist. Her artistic talents can be seen in her jewelry designs, sea island wreaths and unique wedding brooms, as well as a member of the Voices of El Shaddi for 25 years. “We are a singing group, but we are also a family.” She enjoys being part of the group because, “singing God’s praises lets us touch one person at a time through song.” In her spare time, she is an avid angler who carries her rod in the car. “I can fish anywhere,” she says.

Born in Summerton, SC, and raised in Aiken, Cora is the granddaughter of a slave master’s daughter. Growing up, she knew that she was a Geechee, but it wasn’t until she came to Hilton Head that she became aware of the Gullah. The self-described “people magnet” worked in hospitality for more than 35 years.

Cora first came here on vacation. “When I came across the bridge for the first time, there was a full moon. [Looking across the water] there was no end to what I could see, and I knew that I was home. [I have always felt that] the moon will always bring you home. Its energy and the water spoke to my spirit, which said ‘this is it.’” Once the vacation was over, she went back home, quit her job and returned in two weeks.

Cora instantly felt as if she was home when she came here. The moon and the water spoke to her and because of that, Harriett Tubman’s voice continues on. Harriett will be walking through Historic Mitchelville again during the park’s annual Juneteenth celebration on June 15. If you see her, be sure to say hello.

Juneteenth Celebration on Hilton Head Island

When: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday, June 15, 2019
Where: Mitchelville Freedom Park, Hilton Head Island
Details: The food and music festival will include interactive experiences that are significant to the era of Mitchelville in the Reconstruction Era, plus live performances by Alvin Garrett, Latrese Bush, Logan the Entertainer and American Idol winner Ruben Studdard. Tickets are $15. Call 843-255-7301 or go to exploremitchelville.org.