One of the most difficult aspects of calling attention to the remarkable story of Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island is the lack of visible remnants.
The unveiling of a kiosk offering a summary of that story at the site of the Mitchelville Preservation Project at Fish Haul Creek is a small, but significant step in bringing to light a too-long neglected part of American history.
Mitchelville, the site of a town created for slaves who had escaped to freedom and the protection of Union troops during the early part of the Civil War, has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1988, but the site has been noted by a lone historical marker on Beach City Road. The town-owned Fish Haul Park provides a wonderful setting for the kiosk, a class project for Leadership Hilton Head-Bluffton.
"It's lighting a flame to get the bigger fire started," class member Lavon Stevens said of the $14,000 project. "It's a great American story ... a home-grown story that needs to be told."
It's certainly a story that more people should know about.
The Port Royal Experiment helped demonstrate the capacity of former slaves to govern themselves and take care of their own.
Mike Trinkley, who oversaw a 1986 archeological dig at Mitchelville as director of the Chicora Foundation, told those gathered for Mitchelville's 140th anniversary in 2002: "One of the often argued ideas is that freedom and self-reliance were so alien to enslaved African-Americans that they took a long time to actually achieve those goals. Mitchelville demonstrates very clearly and dramatically that this is not the case."
If all goes as hoped, the kiosks and accompanying signs will bring together an old story with new technology.
Visitors will be able to use their smartphones to scan QR codes on the signs, allowing them to see articles, and eventually, podcasts on the Mitchelville Preservation Project's website, become friends of the project on Facebook and make donations.
The group wants to pay consultants to develop a business and operating plan for the park. It also plans archeological digs to uncover the foundations of old homes and re-establish the town's street grid.
Raising Mitchelville's visibility will be a key part to bringing to fruition all that is envisioned for the Mitchelville Preservation Project.