Mitchelville tells story that needs to be heard

In Beaufort County, we should not need a national designation of February as "Black History Month" to appreciate the African-American experience.

This community's history and the history of African-Americans are one and the same.

Much of it is of national, or global, significance. Beaufort County's history includes the earliest tastes of freedom from enslavement for African-Americans, and efforts to structure a new society for and by the formerly enslaved to include education, land ownership, military service, organized religion, justice, entrepreneurship, self-governance and democracy.

Early efforts to preserve African-American art forms â€" such as spirituals, dance, basketmaking and food â€" took place here.

Leaders in Reconstruction came from Beaufort County, including Robert Smalls of Beaufort, who rose from slavery to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

And because of the isolation of Beaufort County's many islands, the strong African influences on language, religion, community, family, food, health care, farming, fishing and the arts survived here almost untouched until the mid-20th century.

Yet the historical significance of the African-American experience here often has been drowned out by the buzz of the modern development that has swept through the county over the past half-century.

That's why the new effort to bring life to the story of Mitchelville on northern Hilton Head Island is exciting. Mitchelville was a planned community that put freedom in action for the formerly enslaved long before the Civil War ended.

Plans now are being formulated to tell this story on the site so the public can see it, feel it and learn about it, even though the village itself is long gone.

How the money could be raised, and how the finished product could support itself, we don't know.

But we do know the concept is sound.

The concept is that one of America's greatest stories took place here, and it needs to be told better, more often and to more people. How it is told is important. It must be factual, accurate and well-documented.

This month, the public has been invited to appreciate the African-American story on Hilton Head through the 15th annual Gullah Celebration. It concludes this weekend with the Lowcountry Heritage Breeds Festival on Saturday at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn and the popular Marsh Tacky Run and Exhibition on Sunday at Coligny Beach Park. Both events are from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Schools also are working overtime to tell the unique story of African-American life in Beaufort County.

Today, the public is invited to the "Celebrating Local Culture" event from 3:30 to 6 p.m. at Hilton Head Island Elementary School. Special guests De Gullah Singers featuring De Washboard Man will be performing from 4 to 5 p.m.

Hilton Head Island High School will culminate a month of special activities with a "wax museum" Friday to engage students in learning and understanding the culture.

Yes, Black History Month and the Gullah Celebration serve a great purpose, as do other festivals that spotlight local heritage throughout the county year-round.

They should help us better appreciate the singular role Beaufort County has played in the African-American experience, and the need to do more with it.