Historians, scholars delve into Mitchelville history at inaugural forum

astice@islandpacket.comOctober 22, 2011 

  • <br />Mitchelville, the nation's first freedman's village, was created in 1862, a year after Union ships drove Confederate troops from Hilton Head Island and a year before the Emancipation Proclamation.<br />About 1,500 former slaves were given a plot of land and allowed to govern themselves.<br />Union troops stayed on Hilton Head until 1868. When the soldiers left, they took down buildings, board-by-board, to be erected elsewhere.<br />In 1986, the Chicora Foundation began an archeological dig which uncovered more than 25,000 artifacts, now held at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn.<br />Mitchelville was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

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Civil War enthusiasts crisscross the country every year visiting the battlefields and the sites of former encampments.

What is often ignored or forgotten are the settlements behind Union lines where former slaves fled in search of freedom, said Amy Murrell Taylor, associate professor at the State University of New York at Albany.

"I hope in the future as they travel from battlefield to battlefield, they will make Mitchelville a very important part of their itinerary," Taylor said.

Taylor was one of eight Civil War scholars and African American historians from across the state and country who spoke at the Inaugural Mitchelville Forum "Unheard Voices at the Dawn of Freedom" on Saturday at the Westin Hotel & Spa.

The Mitchelville Preservation Project, which organized the Civil War sesquicentennial event, is working to save the site of the nation's first freedman's village from oblivion.

About 250 people gathered in a ballroom for the day-long forum centered on issues and stories related to Mitchelville, where former slaves began governing themselves in 1862 before they were granted citizenship and constitutional rights.

Thavolia Glymph, associate professor at Duke University, said between 500,000 and a million black refugees sought protection with occupying Union troops in crowded contraband camps across the South.

But the soldiers they thought would be protectors were often abusers instead, and saw the refugees as sources of labor, Glymph said.

The former slaves' struggles finding a new identity and the violence they encountered along the way have "no place in our memories, celebrations and commemorations," she said.

Taylor is assisting the National Park Service with a project charting similar settlements. About 130 "contraband camps" across the country have been identified so far. The vast majority were near major battlefields, making life in the settlements chaotic and uncertain, she said.

Giselle White-Perry, assistant professor at S.C. State University, told the audience they could play a part in making sure the history is not forgotten with projects of their own: Mapping their ancestry.

History can come alive by interviewing living relatives and digging up records, she said.

White-Perry has traced her family tree to her great, great grandfather, one of Mitchelville's first citizens.

"We are all history-makers and we are making history right here today," White-Perry said.

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/BlufftonBlogIP.

Related content:

Mitchelville Forum gives voice to forgotten history, Oct. 15, 2011

Lack of historic knowledge, infrastructure among obstacles facing Mitchelville Preservation Project, Feb. 8, 2011 Group asks county to buy land for Mitchelville museum project, Nov. 30, 2010

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