College students visiting Hilton Head Island for spring break typically come to bury their toes in the sand.
But Clemson University sophomore Kamairi Fayall is here to dig into the ancestry of native islander Thomas Barnwell Jr.
Fayall and four other Clemson students are volunteering at the Heritage Library during their spring break this week, researching the family trees of Hilton Head natives and documenting the bloodlines of original Mitchelville residents.
Fayall sits at a library table and talks with Barnwell, who lists the names of relatives, along with the dates and places of their births, marriages and deaths. Barnwell tells Fayall he has a book at home with more information. He'll retrieve it during her lunch break.
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Fayall looks up from the family tree she is annotating and says, "I couldn't tell you half of what he told me" about her own family. "It makes me eager to know my own history."
That will be a project for later in the semester.
Now, the focus of the three-semester course is on reconstructing the genealogy of Mitchelville residents and recording their oral histories. The research will prepare students to explore their own family trees later in the course, according to project coordinator Barbara Hamberg of Clemson.
The project also helps the library's efforts to identify all 1,500 or so ex-slaves who inhabited the town of Mitchelville between 1862 and 1868, according to Linda Piekut, executive director of the Heritage Library Foundation. So far, the library has identified about 500 Mitchelville residents from military and hospital records.
Mitchelville, once at the island's north end along what is now Beach City Road, was established in 1862, before the Emancipation Proclamation and a year after Union ships drove Confederate troops off Hilton Head Island.
The freedmen who lived there elected their own officials and passed laws -- including the first mandatory education law in the South -- before constitutional amendments granted such rights for African-Americans.
It's a story that Fayall, a pre-law major, said she never heard before enrolling in the course. That makes the subject matter all the more interesting, she said.
"You have to know where you come from to know where you're going," she said.