A state budget proposal sets aside $200,000 to preserve Mitchelville, believed to be American's first planned community for freed slaves, but supporters might have to fight for it.
The S.C. Senate debated amendments to the 2012-13 budget Tuesday and Wednesday. Among them is a measure from Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, stripping $4 million worth of projects earmarked for private nonprofits and local governments, including $200,000 for the Mitchelville Preservation Project.
Some senators, however, are considering whether the money could be routed through state agencies, which would decide how best to disburse the dollars.
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who supports Mitchelville's restoration, says he will vote in favor of Massey's amendment.
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"I think preserving Mitchelville is a worthy project, but it ought not be funded via a political earmark in the budget," Davis said. "All politicians think their projects are worthy. That's why it's important for the projects to go through a competitive selection process before the appropriate executive agency, which in the case of Mitchelville would be the Department of Archives and History."
Davis believes he can persuade the state agency to fund its preservation, and says he's eager to help, comparing the effort to preserving Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg, Pa., and Manassas, Va.
"It's an extraordinary story, a compelling reminder of a defining moment in our nation's history right here in our own backyard," he said. "I am a strong proponent of limited government, but preserving something of great historical significance is a proper state function, and I am prepared to advocate its funding to the appropriate state agency in an open and competitive process."
Mitchelville was established in 1862, before the Emancipation Proclamation and a year after Union ships drove Confederate troops from Hilton Head Island.
Barracks were initially set up for "contraband" slaves left behind Union lines and those who fled to freedom from plantations on nearby islands. Living conditions, however, soon became intolerable.
Military orders were issued from Washington freeing the slaves in April 1862. Later, Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel, for whom Mitchelville is named, set land aside to create the village. Each family was given a quarter-acre plot to build a home and grow crops. The village of 1,500 or so was built along what is now Beach City Road at the island's north end.
The freedmen elected their own officials and passed their own laws, including the first compulsory education law in the South, before Constitutional amendments granted such rights for African Americans.
The nonprofit group seeking to preserve the site hopes to use the state money to help buy plots adjoining 35-acres of town- and county-donated land along Beach City Road.
The land abuts Fish Haul Creek Park, which the Town of Hilton Head has tentatively agreed to lease to the group so parts of the village can be recreated. The 10.5 acres would help the group preserve more of Mitchelville, which over time has been split, built up, sold, resold and eyed for development.
"We want to acquire as much of the original Mitchelville land as we can to preserve the spot where these freed slaves saw the dawn of freedom," newly named project chairman Randy Dolyniuk said.
The group is particularly interested in buying Jerre Weckhorst's house, a replica home and headquarters for Gen. Mitchel, which includes a trove of artifacts from the mid-19th century and earlier.
The house is not on the market, but Weckhorst said he will consider selling to the Mitchelville group.
The nonprofit group hopes it can purchase the five parcels for about $2.9 million.
"Two-hundred thousand dollars is a drop in the bucket, but is a very important drop in the bucket," Dolyniuk said. "That may be the seed money that will help us leverage more donations."
There is no timetable for completion of the project, which is in its early stages. Plans include ongoing archeological digs and research; replicas of cottages, a school, and a prayer house; commemorative statues and a welcome center.
"It's a shame more people, even those in Beaufort County, don't know about Mitchelville," Davis said. "We rightly recognize Penn Center and the historic district of downtown Beaufort, but don't give Mitchelville its due, and I will do whatever I can to raise public awareness and ensure it is preserved."
The Associated Press contributed to this story