Difference makers who shined before the “rediscovered” Hilton Head.
Story by Lola Campbell
How much do you really know about significant Native Islanders who lived between the late 1800s and 2000?
As local islander Johnnie Mitchell points out, most history books written about Hilton Head cover the period between the arrival of William Hilton through the Civil War and then again the “rediscovery” of the island by developers in the 1950s. Glossed over are the years between the Civil War and “developed” Hilton Head, usually summarized with a brief mention that the island was “occupied by farmers and fishermen.”
While the island was indeed filled with talented farmers and fishermen, there were many other contributors to that list as well. Some we’ve heard about and others not at all. If you look to history, or perhaps have enough conversations with Native Islanders who have been here for more than 60 years, you’ll realize that everyone was a farmer before the bridge. Every family maintained a plot, large or small, to sell in trade or feed their families. It was a way of life and survival, along with fishing. But, while important, in no way did these two ways of life describe island life as a whole.
The truth is, many islanders were savvy and educated, both formally and informally. They were entrepreneurs, industrialists, craftsman and more, hailing from the historic Gullah neighborhoods. They paved the way, in their own style, to the successful results of progress we see today. If you haven’t heard these names before, by the time you finish reading this article, I promise you’ll be thankful for the knowledge.
Benjamin Walter White Sr.
Let’s start with a man from the Grassland/Big Hill neighborhood whose name you may have seen on a road sign as you drove down Union Cemetery Road – Ben White Sr. Whether you’ve seen the name or not, chances are you may not know its significance. Benjamin Walter White Sr. lived from 1881-1955. He was a large landowner and one of the most successful farmers known for his watermelon crops. It’s likely he was the first on the island to own a brand new tractor. He farmed his own land, but as a strategic way to increase his yield, he also rented additional plots of land from others to farm. Not only was White a great farmer, but also an employer, supplying work for boat owners he hired to transport his crops to Savannah; a supporter of progress, with a belief that Hilton Head would one day become the coveted destination that it is today; and a champion of education, knowing that his family would need to be prepared to withstand the growth of the island. Notwithstanding his third-grade education, he instilled the importance of education within his children, leading fifteen of the seventeen to earn college degrees — a magnificent statistic and accomplishment during the time — and all paid for from those watermelons and other crops grown on the land we now know as Port Royal Plantation. His family members recall a couple of statements he often made that explain the type of human being he was. One was, “a man should shade the ground he stands on, and let your word be bond.”Another was, “if anybody should ask about him and his family, tell them we are rising.”
James Grant Sr.
Now take U.S. 278 east from the Grassland area to the Chaplin neighborhood, where James Grant Sr. lived from 1918 to 1979. He contributed to the island’s economy in his own way. Grant was most notably known for founding Grant’s Fresh Produce, a side-of-the-road vegetable stand that he worked for decades, along with his wife, Janie Aiken Grant. He was also a carpenter and store owner — building the liquor store he owned and his own home — and a farmer and fisherman, often selling fish and produce at his market. Although Grant died when his granddaughter Sheryse (Grant) Dubose was 8, she recalls “memories of going to the farmers market with him in Savannah, how my cousins and I would pile into his van and pretend to drive it, and dodging his horse that hung out in the yard.” She said the biggest thing she carries with her is “the fact that he believed that owning property and having a formal education were very important, and he instilled that belief in his children. He saw that they were all educated, and that philosophy has passed to his grandchildren as well.” Dubose says, “My grandfather had a feeling about how this island would progress, and he did all he could to make sure that his family prepared for that.” Grant’s son, Moses, shared with the Island Packet in a tribute to his mother that his father “always pressed on us that we could get money or land or material things, but all that could be taken from us … but education (something in your head is the way he put it) can never be taken from you.”
See a familiar theme here? It’s as if the old guard had a “meeting of the minds” to prepare the future generation for the big happenings ahead on this relatively small island.
Solomon Christopher Campbell Jr.
Backtrack a bit from Chaplin, make a left on Mathews Drive, pass Central Oak Grove Baptist Church, go three-quarters of the way around the circle, and enter onto Marshland Road through the Marshland and Gardner neighborhoods until you come to Spanish Wells. You’ll soon arrive at the birthplace of Solomon Christopher Campbell Jr., a decorated craftsman who lived from 1910-1989 and supplied the island with water transportation and dwellings. I would have never known the significance of my grandfather’s trade to this island and its residents had I not heard the stories from my father and other family members. My grandfather was too humble of a man to mention it. He was a kind man with a demanding presence who would always have something to give you. My father and his siblings have often shared that “the old man left the discipline to Mama but taught us to love and respect.” Most know “Bubba,” as his grandchildren called him, for the beautiful bateaus — flat-bottomed wooden boats — he built into the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. He also built homes, including those for prominent black Savannah families on Singleton Beach and renovations to his own home passed down from his father. And, of course, he farmed land and caught fish in one of those coveted bateaus. I remember watching the hands of my grandfather as he would prepare a favorite meal for me — stewed fish and sweet potatoes. His hands were huge and weathered, but delicate at the same time. I imagine they were perfect for crafting and building important, useful things for island residents. I recall my Uncle David describing B’Sollie’s yard as “full of things, or materials” and that he “always had a project going,” including making headstones for graves in the Spanish Wells cemetery. In an interview by Porter Thompson, he shared the list of materials used for the last boat he built: 1) various sizes of selected cypress; 2) eight pounds of nails and screws; 3) oarlocks, and 4) paint and some caulking. From this simple list, and without plans, he could construct a well-built boat that could last for 20 to 30 years with proper care. I’d like to think that the patience my grandfather had to complete over 100 boats in his lifetime came from the discipline taught by my great-grandparents, who were good but strict parents. He passed these ideals on, with the help of my grandmother, to his own children, making sure they were either formally educated or learned a useful trade that would carry them through life.
Fred Owens and Naomi Frazier
Just beyond Spanish Wells, moving toward U.S. 278 before you cross over Jarvis Creek, you’ll come across the Jonesville/Jarvis neighborhood, which was known for a few business owners who contributed to the island. One was Fred Owens (1881-unknown), a store owner, and another was Naomi Frazier (1905-1992), the first black female funeral director and florist on the island. Owens stocked his store with necessities, like kerosene that otherwise would have been hard for families to find. Frazier, a pioneer and trailblazer in her industry, and an inspiration to future female business owners, provided a service that everyone needed at some point.
All entrepreneurs, whether out of choice or necessity, these men and woman had their eyes on the prize and were forward thinking at a time when many were skeptical at best as to the progress and changes to come. They provided services and products to their fellow islanders and contributed to a better Hilton Head. For that they deserve to be paid gratitude and remembrance and have their stories continuously told.