A 30-pound sheet metal sculpture of a member of the U.S. 32nd Colored Infantry was unveiled Saturday at Mitchelville, a day dripping with symbolism.
The soldiers from the 32nd built Fort Howell to protect Mitchelville, the first freedmen's village in the South, on what is now Hilton Head Island.
"When we decided to unveil our statue, (the Gullah Celebration committee) said, 'Please do it at this time,' so it made a beautiful freedom walk to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the passing of the 13th Amendment" abolishing slavery, Linda Hyslop said. Hyslop is president of the Hilton Head Land Trust, which has overseen Fort Howell for 20 years.
The 1/8-mile freedom walk -- from St. James Baptist Church to Fort Howell -- that preceded the unveiling was led by Cora Miller of Hilton Head, who portrayed legendary abolitionist Harriet Tubman during the walk. Miller was followed by local gospel group Voices of El Shaddai, and then by members of the community.
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The unveiling ceremony featured a number of speakers, including descendants of soldiers who served in the Civil War in South Carolina.
"This is your ancestors," said Miller, holding a handful of straw and leaves she picked up from the ground, to the crowd of about 150 people. "They bleed. They sweat. They cried here on this ground that you stand."
The sculpture, which will soon be set in concrete, stands 5 feet, 6 inches tall to replicate the approximate height of members of the U.S. 32nd Colored Infantry. Depending on fundraising, the fort's first statue could soon be joined by numerous others, according to Mary Ann Browning Ford, the Hilton Head artist who created the sculpture.
For some attendees, the afternoon had personal meaning. Arthur Champen of Hilton Head had two great-great-grandfathers who served in the Civil War, both in the 22nd U.S. Colored Artillery, in 1863 and 1864.
"Right now I'm trying to teach my children the rich heritage and the things that our ancestors accomplished," said Champen, a Vietnam War veteran whose father served in World War II and the Korean War. "It's a great reward."
Veronica Miller's great-grandfather served in the 21st Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry from 1864 to 1866. She also lives on Hilton Head.
"This is a very, very important day just to memorialize and commemorate him for serving his country and also leaving a legacy for his family here on Hilton Head," she said.
The 2015 Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration runs through the end of February, with events scheduled each weekend.
Follow reporter Josh Mitelman at twitter.com/IPBG_Josh.