Mitchelville group asks Hilton Head for 15 acres to mark freedmen's village

(Editor's note: This story was edited to correct an error Aug. 4, 2010.)

Local preservationists have asked the Town of Hilton Head Island to hand over about 15 acres of town-owned land so they can include it in a park on the site of one of the nation's first freedmen's villages.

Town Council's Public Projects and Facilities Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to let the Mitchelville Preservation Project lease Fish Haul Creek Park from the town for $1 a year. The recommendation will be sent to the full council for its consideration Sept. 7.The group hopes to lease the land for no more than $1 a year for 99 years, an arrangement similar to a deal between the town and the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn.

"I'm really excited about what this project can do for Hilton Head," said Ward 3 Town Councilman Drew Laughlin, who sits on the Public Projects and Facilities Committee.

Tom Barnwell, project chairman, said the group intends to use the park as an educational and interpretive site that preserves the history of Mitchelville.

Committee members said the park would remain open to the general public, since the town owns the land, and people would be able to access it for existing uses.

Mitchelville was created for freed slaves in 1862, a year after Union ships drove Confederate troops from Hilton Head Island. Barracks were set up for "contraband" slavesleft behind Union lines, but when conditions became intolerable, Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel ordered a plot of land be set aside for them. The plan, considered radical at its time,gave each slave a quarter acre to build a house, said Ben Williams, a Mitchelville Preservation Project committee member who researched the site's history. The slaves were allowed to govern themselves and learn self-dependence, Williams said.

"This idea of freedom at Mitchelville beginning to occur in 1862, before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, is an authentic American story," Williams told the committee. "It was the dawn of freedom at the end of 250 years of bondage and foreshadows the heritage of freedom as struggle, perseverance and resilience, the roots of which were planted by the experiences of the freedmen at Mitchelville."

The area next to Fish Haul Creek Park remains mostly undeveloped and might hold artifacts. The Chicora Foundation, a nonprofit heritage preservation organization, completed an archeological dig at Fish Haul Creek Park in 1995, uncovering more than 25,000 Mitchelville artifacts. The foundation called the site one of the richest African-American archeological sites in the Southeast, Barnwell said.

He said creating the Mitchelville park would mean a lot to the island's native population and attract tourists interested in Gullah and Civil War history.

Mitchelville was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1988, making the site eligible for grants, internships and tax incentives for corporate donors. Congress in 2003 declared the site important to preserving and understanding the nation's difficulties during Reconstruction.

"This is a story of national importance that is being told at the Smithsonian and in a small part at the Coastal Discovery Museum," said Michael Marks, president and CEO of the coastal museum. "Now is the time to tell the story where it actually evolved. This has immense cultural attractions."

Barnwell said he hopes to have the first phase of the project completed in time for Mitchelville's sesquicentennial in 2012. The first phase includes building a welcome center, replica school, entry plaza and statue of Gen. Mitchel.

Barnwell said the project will cost $2 million to $2.5 million, with the firstphase costing $500,000 to $750,000.

He said the preservation group has applied for tax-exempt status and set up a fund at the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry to receive donations for the project. So far, the group has collected more than $5,000.

"We don't have all of the I's dotted and the T's crossed, but we've made the first step," Barnwell said.