David Lauderdale

Mitchelville Forum gives voice to forgotten history

Voices remain a whisper 150 years after the chains of slavery were ripped apart in a single day in Beaufort County.

They are the voices of the African Americans who stayed behind when slave owners fled ahead of thousands of Union troops whose armada blasted away a couple of small forts on Nov. 7, 1861, then occupied Hilton Head Island and Beaufort throughout the Civil War.

They are the voices of African Americans called "contraband," who flocked to Hilton Head seeking freedom they felt would be ensured by Lincoln's occupying soldiers.

Those voices will get a room full of microphones Saturday when eight scholars highlight the Inaugural Mitchelville Forum: "Unheard Voices at the Dawn of Freedom."

The forum -- from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Westin Hotel & Spa -- will be presented by the Mitchelville Preservation Project. This young organization wants to bring something tactile, scholarly and interesting to the site on Hilton Head where the planned town of Mitchelville once spoke volumes about race, a subject that still vexes the nation.

Mitchelville's residents freed themselves and then governed themselves. They are long gone. But their story shouldn't disappear.

"It's sacred soil in a way," said Monica M. Tetzlaff, one of the forum's presenters. "It represents so many hopes and dreams."

The associate professor of history at Indiana University South Bend says Mitchelville was one of the first places where blacks realized American rights, long before the Constitution granted those rights.

Mitchelville had the first compulsory-education law in South Carolina. Its residents had churches, schools and businesses. They cleaned the streets.

"This showed their ideals," Tetzlaff said, "and it shows us they were forward-thinking. They cared about their children."

It was a turbulent time, with rough relationships between soldiers and the islanders. It was a time of racial and sexual tension. But what took place here is a vital chapter of American and world history that should be fleshed out and better appreciated.

Tetzlaff knows the Lowcountry well. She did some studies for her doctorate at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island. She wrote a book about a Beaufort family, published by the University of South Carolina in 2002, called "Cultivating a New South: Abbie Holmes Christensen and the Politics of Race and Gender, 1852-1938."

She also wrote an essay -- "Mitchelville: An Early Experiment in Self-Governance" -- in the 1993 book edited by Charles C. McCracken and Faith M. McCracken, "The Forgotten History: A Photographic Essay on Civil War Hilton Head Island."

In it, Tetzlaff lamented that the legacy of Mitchelville was not even marked by a monument or sign.

"It is my hope that the Town of Hilton Head Island would purchase a part of the site of Mitchelville, which has been designated a historic district," she wrote. "Since no buildings survive, a piece of the land could become a public park, a scenic spot with a few illustrated signboards explaining the significance of Mitchelville. Residents and visitors would picnic or stroll near Port Royal Sound and learn a little American history in the process."

Now -- with the town's help -- that wish is showing new promise.

Fran White, who chairs the Mitchelville Preservation Project board, said the Mitchelville Forum addresses two goals identified during strategic planning.

"We need to let the community know exactly what happened at Mitchelville," she said. "What was it? When did it exist? What academic research has been done on it?"

They also want to "expand the dialogue" on the Civil War sesquicentennial beyond battles and strategy to include the human stories.

The story of Mitchelville's humanity shouts for attention.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.