The Town of Hilton Head Island hopes an infusion of $100,000 cash will finally move forward efforts to highlight the nation’s first Civil War freedmen’s village.
Though Mitchelville is one of the most historic sites on the island, there are still limited opportunities to learn about the place where newly freed slaves built and self-governed a community of their own, one year before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
About a decade after the formation of the Mitchelville Preservation Project, officials with the town and museum are now planning to hire an executive director, a first step toward building the Mitchelville Freedom Park that has existed only on paper for many years.
“It is untapped potential and we have got to get off the train we are on and start investing in an asset in our community and help us realize our potential,” Mayor David Bennett said. “There is no one else in the country who can tell this story that, forgive my language, we’ve been jacking around on for I don’t know how long.”
To date, the non-profit organization lacks an executive director and uses donations to pay the salary of its one part-time employee, Joyce Wright, and accommodations tax revenue to pay for marketing efforts.
This year, it received $40,000 for general marketing and $60,000 for the 2016 Underground Railroad Conference, being held on Hilton Head from June 13-16, according to town finance director Susan Simmons.
Town council agreed Tuesday evening, at its FY 2017 budget workshop, to give the museum $100,000 to help the Mitchelville Preservation Project with the hire. After councilwoman Kim Likins said she had doubts that salary would attract the right candidate, Rex Garniewicz, director of the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn, promised to supplement the town’s commitment, if necessary.
“I’m not ready to give up just because it’s going to be hard,” Garniewicz said.
“That’s all I needed,” Likins said.
However, Likins had also commented that the job description seemed unrealistic, including raising enough money to fund his or her own salary by 2019. Mitchelville Preservation Project board chair Shirley Peterson refuted that Wednesday, arguing she and the project’s other board members would not be serving if they didn’t believe their master plan was possible.
She said she particularly appreciated Bennett’s candor and the support of most council members.
“I think people have a misnomer that our board is just made up of people who see Mitchelville as a nice-to-do,” Peterson said. “Our board is made up of a professionals who have a corporate background, who have run businesses who have a passion for this project and we know this can be done.”
“It just has to have support,” she added.
Council meets June 24 to finalize its budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
If approved, the project’s executive director would not only fundraise but work to increase membership and plan programming related to the Mitchelville settlement, which existed along what is now Beach City Road.
As it stands today, the site is mostly quiet save for the annual Juneteenth celebration commemorating the end of slavery, periodic community events and daily Gullah Heritage Trail Tours. Visitors can also view an exhibit of original artifacts at the Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa and, for an experience focused on the Gullah legacy, make appointments to tour the tiny Gullah Museum of Hilton Head, located off Gumtree Road.
Eventually, the Mitchelville Preservation Project hopes to recreate parts of the original, 1860s-era village and provide visitors with a rotating slate of exhibits, lectures, forums, tours and cultural programs.
Budget requests FY 2016
Five other affiliated agencies requested extra money from the Town of Hilton Head Island for the fiscal year that begins July 1:
- Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office: Department asked for nearly $3.9 million, about 20 percent more than it received last year. Council agreed to a budget of $3.18 million, including stipends, and to place $288,000 in reserves, about 40 percent of what the Sheriff’s Office needed for new requests.
- Economic Development Corporation: This group asked for nearly $500,000, about 10 percent more than it received last year. Council asked the group to “scrub the numbers” and return with a slimmed down request June 7.
- Palmetto Breeze: Asked for $250,000, a 25 percent increase. Council added the money to its budget.
- Island Recreation Assocation: Asked for about $950,000, a 4 percent increase. Council added the money to its budgt.
- Community Foundation of the Lowcountry: The Public Arts arm asked for $50,000, a 33 percent increase. Council added the money to its budget.
The Solicitor’s Office asked for the same amount of funding in FY 2017. The University of South Carolina-Beaufort asked for less money next year.