Mitchelville: The greatest untold story
Story by Lola Campbell
We are very lucky – I’d even venture to say blessed – to live on this little island called Hilton Head. On the island lies so much beauty, but also so many stories and pieces of history that are unknown — or rather untold. Just under seven miles from where I was raised, and about a mile from the church I grew up in, near the end of Beach City Road, steps from a true “islander’s beach,” sit sparse remnants of one of the most important settlements in U.S. history. It’s the place where freedom literally began — Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, affectionately known to native and local islanders as “Mitchelville.” Although I grew up so close to Mitchelville, I had no knowledge of its existence until somewhere around my late 20s or early 30s. That’s pretty unbelievable! A quick visit to Mitchelville’s website (exploremitchelville.com) will teach you that it is “the first self-governed town of formerly enslaved people in the United States.” Further exploration will bring you to a brief synopsis of Mitchelville’s inspiring story: “What had begun as only a military mission grew into something more than that. Mitchelville became a vibrant, self-governed community, both defined and accentuated by the customs and cultures of native islanders, the Gullahs and those brought to America from a multitude of countries and islands. At its height Mitchelville boasted 1,500 to 3,000 residents and demonstrated freedom and opportunity for African Americans diverse in backgrounds and origins.”
A bit of a deeper dive into Mitchelville’s timeline will reveal just how the settlement came about — with the arrival of Union Army Major General Ormsby Mitchel in September 1862 on Hilton Head. He had a vision for the formerly enslaved people who were now freed. General Mitchel spoke with members of First African Baptist Church about his vision of what he would like to see become of the “freedman’s village” he set out to create. “What will you do with the black man after liberating him? We will make him a useful, industrious citizen. We will give him his family, his wife, his children – give him the earnings of the sweat of his brow, and as a man, we will give him what the Lord ordained him to have. This experiment is to give you freedom, position, homes, your families, property, your own soil. It seems to me a better time is coming, a better day is dawning.” Mitchelville lasted from 1862 to 1877, when many of the residents decided to move on, as they realized that they indeed could go elsewhere and seize new opportunities.
By now you understand why many may refer to Mitchelville’s story as the “Greatest Untold Story.” I first felt ashamed for my ignorance of such an important piece of history, and then I felt disappointed for not having been taught about it in the many history lessons I had received in school.
However, those feelings of shame and disappointment eventually morphed into feelings of pride for, one, having grown up near such a monumental place, and, two, being able to say that the citizens of Mitchelville were from the very same culture I was fortunate to be born into.
Although many locals today do know the story of Mitchelville, I still found myself recently just a stone’s throw away from the park, on the sidelines of a flag football game at Barker Field, explaining the true meaning and significance of Mitchelville. The response in this type of situation usually comes with confusion, awe and an astounding, “Why didn’t I know about this?!” But that is fast-changing with the help of Mitchelville’s executive director, staff and the organization’s board of directors who are on a mission to create “an imaginative and exciting place that celebrates the American spirit by celebrating the story of the first town of self-governing formerly enslaved people in the United States.”
Mitchelville’s story not only needs to be told locally, or regionally, or nationally, but internationally as well. We have been learning the stories of countries and empires around the world – traveling far distances to experience them. There is a story right here, in our backyards, that deserves the same attention. Mitchelville is a destination that has the power to put Hilton Head on a new map — one of cultural tourism. As a native islander and local, I find it my duty to help introduce Mitchelville to the world, and I invite you to join me.
About the author:
Omolola “Lola” Campbell was born and raised on Hilton Head into one of the oldest native families and in the Spanish Wells community. Her great-grandfather, The Rev. Solomon Campbell, the grandson of an enslaved man living on Hilton Head at the time the Union captured Hilton Head in 1861, is thought to be the first Gullah teacher born and raised on the island. Her grandfather, Solomon Campbell Jr., was one of the few early craftsmen who built bateaus and homes for locals on Hilton Head. A formally trained lawyer, Lola works part-time as a senior derivatives counsel in the financial industry but is also a writer and entrepreneur. Some of her recent endeavors include founding Binya, a local Gullah and Lowcountry-inspired gift shop, a self-published book titled “Writings on the Wall: Poetic Words from My Soul” and founding a lifestyle brand called Gone Gullah, which represents the Gullah culture of Hilton Head and surrounding areas.