Mitchelville exhibit's images, artifacts give form to freedom

bheffernan@islandpacket.comAugust 3, 2013 

For those long held in bondage, the village of Mitchelville offered the freedom long hoped for.

Now, nearly 150 years later, little remains of America's first settlement for freed and escaped slaves. But a historical exhibit opening soon at the Hilton Head Island High School Seahawk Cultural Center will provide a sense of what Mitchelville was like.

"Dawn of Freedom: The Freedmen's Town of Mitchelville," on loan from the University of South Carolina's McKissick Museum in Columbia, displays 33 photos reprints, maps and documents showing life on Hilton Head just before the village's creation and afterward.

Along with the graphic material, the exhibit includes items excavated from the site Mitchelville, such as iron ware, glass bottles, clothing accessories and personal items like a rubber comb.

The gallery will hold an invitation-only reception from 2-5 p.m. on Aug. 11, then be open to the public from Aug. 13 to Oct. 30 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and on Sundays from noon to 3 p.m.

"People like to see something tangible" to understand a story better, said Jackie Rosswurm, a board member of the Mitchelville Preservation Project.

"Stories are one thing, but seeing the photos and artifacts make the story real," she said.

Joyce Wright, interim director for the Mitchelville group, said she "was just blown away" when she saw the exhibit in Columbia and is thrilled to bring exhibit back home to Hilton Head.

Mitchelville was built along what is now Beach City Road, on land set aside by Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel -- the settlement's namesake -- for escaped slaves and freedmen after Union troops drove Confederate soldiers off the island in 1861. Mitchelville was self-governing: Its residents elected their own officials and passed laws, including the first compulsory education law in the South.

By 1862, the town had more than 1,500 residents. The names of many of its residents are included in the exhibit.

Much of the exhibit might end up traveling throughout the Sea Islands of the Gullah-Geechee Corridor, Wright said. Such a "mobile museum" is being considered in collaboration with the McKissick Museum, though the idea has not been funded yet, she said.

Hilton Head is the first place the exhibit has been shown since debuting in the McKissick Museum earlier this year.

Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at

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