The Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Leadership Class of 2012 hopes to make the story of Mitchelville a lifelong legacy on Hilton Head.
The leadership class held an oyster roast Sunday at Roastfish and Cornbread restaurant to raise money for the leadership class's project to build a kiosk on the site of a proposed park aimed at preserving the history of the nation's first village created for freed slaves.
Mitchelville was established in 1862, before the Emancipation Proclamation and a year after Union ships drove Confederate troops from Hilton Head.
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. The village was built along what is now Beach City Road.
The freed slaves were allowed to govern and educate themselves before being granted citizenship.
"It's a story that's been forgotten, sadly," said Joyce Wright, interim director of the Mitchelville Preservation Project.
The nonprofit group is working to replicate and preserve a portion of the historic site as an educational and interpretive park telling the inspiring story of the Sea Island Africans' contribution to the heritage of freedom in America.
The kiosk is the starting point, Wright said.
"Information on the site is desperately needed," she said.
Leadership class member Paul Boes said kiosk signs and those along an accompanying oyster-shell path will provide educational exhibits about the culture and history of Mitchelville, "creating an outdoor classroom for lectures and school field trips" and a point of interest for tourists.
Wright said the nonprofit group plans to work with the Coastal Discovery Museum, the Heritage Library and other groups to bring tours to the site.
"It's lighting a flame to get the bigger fire started," class member Lavon Stevens, an island Realtor and musician, said of the $14,000 project. "It's a great American story ... a home-grown story that needs to be told."
The kiosk's frame and shell path have already been built. A University of South Carolina doctoral student is working with the preservation group to verify the historical accuracy of the signs that will be placed for the project, Boes said. The leadership class hopes to have them installed by mid- to late-April.
Visitors will be able to use their smartphones to scan QR codes on the signs, allowing them to access articles and, eventually, podcasts on the Mitchelville Preservation Project's website, become friends of the project on Facebook and make donations, Wright said.
Scanning the codes also will allow the nonprofit group to track how many people visit the park and where they're from to help the group raise money, Wright said.
Heather Rath, a member of the Mitchelville Preservation Project's board of directors, said the group has been working with the Hilton Head-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce's Visitor and Convention Bureau on a national marketing campaign. Wright said the group also plans to launch a social media campaign in the next couple months to get the word.
Each year, the chamber sponsors a leadership program to enhance volunteerism and community awareness, and each class is tasked with a project. Last year's class created a gathering place at the Calhoun Street Promenade in old town Bluffton.
"We are very grateful to the leadership class," Wright said. "There is a lot to be done to develop the park, but this is a good way for us to encourage the community and show them it's moving forward."
Boes said the class hopes to have a ribbon cutting for the kiosk in May.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.