Enduring through perseverance and fellowship, freed slaves on Hilton Head Island rallied around a beacon of hope and faith that lasted more than a century and continues to guide islanders today.
On Sunday, members of the island's oldest church will kick off a yearlong calendar of events celebrating 150 years.
First African Baptist Church became a cornerstone for Mitchelville, the nation's first village created for freed slaves. The church, like the village, was founded in the fall of 1862, before the Emancipation Proclamation and a year after Union ships drove Confederate troops from the Sea Islands along the state's southern coast.
Barracks were initially set up for "contraband" slaves left behind Union lines. Gen. Ormsby Mitchel later ordered that the 1,500 or so former slaves be given land to build homes on. The village was built along what is now Beach City Road.
They were allowed to govern and educate themselves and learn self-dependence before being granted citizenship. They elected their own officials and passed their own laws, including the first compulsory education law in the state.
To do so, they needed a place to congregate, discuss and plan their "experiment in freedom," including the purchase of land and organizing schools, said native island historian Emory Campbell, chairman of the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission.
First African Baptist Church provided that, Campbell said.
"First African Baptist and Mitchelville go hand-in-hand," he said.
"The spiritual life of the newly freed slaves was the most important part of life because worship was a free activity for enslaved people. They drew strength and hope from their faith that they would live as free people -- that their freedom would be delivered by God. After slavery, they carried that over into freed life to keep them organized and provide a moral compass for the village."
First African Baptist would later become known as the "mother church," giving birth to others across the island and mainland, such as St. James Baptist, Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist, Central Oak Grove Missionary Baptist and New Church of Christ on Hilton Head, and First Zion Baptist Church in Bluffton.
The church became a focal point of fellowship for the isolated island community of farmers, fishermen and artisans, said the Rev. Alvin Petty, the church's current pastor.
"And it remains strong to this day," Petty said. "This is one of the most historic and remarkable milestones many of us will see in our lifetime. ... The founding fathers of this church would be full of joy and pride to see what they began in 1862 as freedmen has lasted into the 21st century."
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- Mitchelville Preservation Project
- First African Baptist Church of Hilton Head Island
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