At the Freedom Day celebration on Hilton Head Island Saturday, the past was present.
Those visiting the island's historic Mitchelville area laughed, gasped and clapped as they listened to Bruce Ingram tell stories of his great-grandfather, who was raised as a slave in South Carolina in the 1800s.
Ingram, who told his stories in front of a dozen of his Gullah-inspired paintings and sculptures, traveled from Jacksonville, Fla., to help remember Freedom Day during the event held at the St. James Baptist Church. It celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and acknowledged the role Mitchelville played in providing freed slaves with a first chance at self-governance and their first taste of freedom.
Ingram took long strides up and down the row of his art, telling the crowd the meaning behind each piece. He gestured to an ancient-looking wooden chair with a caved in woven seat.
"My great-grandfather sat in this chair," he said. "And I still have it."
When the Emancipation Proclamation was read by Betty Days of Hilton Head, the crowd rose to its feet to cheer the history-changing document .
Songs of freedom were also sung. The Central Oak Grove Youth Choir led the crowd of about 100 in "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and Cora Miller of Hilton Head sang "Old, Old Freedom."
"I can imagine the slaves gathered (to hear the proclamation)," Miller said after the song. She closed her eyes and turned her face toward the breeze. "The wind coming from the north -- just like it is today -- must have felt like a new breath of freedom."
Freedom Day kicked off the 17th annualHilton Head Island Gullah Celebration, which has been held during February since 1996. That celebration started earlier this year to mark the Emancipation's anniversary.
Mitchelville, created by the freed slaves in 1862, was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1988. In 2003, Congress declared the site important in preserving and understanding the nation's difficulties during the Reconstruction era.
Follow reporter Anne Christnovich twitter.com/IPBG_Anne