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exhibit brings to life history of significant lowcountry set

The Bluffton Sun

More than 150 years ago, hundreds of slaves throughout the Lowcountry escaped bondage and began a new life on Hilton Head Island, a life of freedom. In 1862, the town of Mitchelville became the first government-sanctioned freedmen’s colony in the United States.

Little remains of this revolutionary moment in history, but the members of the Mitchelville Preservation Project (MPP) have been working diligently to replicate, preserve and sustain this historically significant site and its story. Their mission is to educate the public about the sacrifice, resilience and perseverance of the pioneers of Mitchelville, and to share the story of how these brave men and women planted strong and enduring familial roots for generations of future African-Americans.

The most recent efforts of the board members have created an opportunity for the public to experience the Mitchelville story in an engaging setting. “Dawn of Freedom: The Freedmen’s Town of Mitchelville” is a historical exhibit that explores the rich history of the original citizens of the town. On loan from the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, the exhibit will be on display August 13 through October 30 at Hilton Head High School’s Seahwak Cultural Center.

The exhibit features a variety of photos, letters, documents and artifacts from the time leading up to the town’s creation, during the development of the community and through the settlement’s early days.

Dr. Edward Puchner, curator of the McKissick Museum, traveled to Hilton Head to oversee the installation of the exhibit. “The story of Mitchelville is part of the history of Hilton Head Island,” explained Dr. Puchner. “The town was organized in the aftermath of the Battle of Port Royal for freed slaves that came from as far away as Florida and Georgia. It gave them a place to reconnect with their families and begin to earn a living. Dawn of Freedom proclaims the early achievements of these African Americans to organize into a community and each become self-supporting, successful citizens – all within a temporary, experimental and very fragile setting.”

Visitors to the exhibit are first greeted by a Mitchelville Preservation Project volunteer who will direct them toward the start of their visual journey. Much like the founding of the town itself, the exhibit begins with the words of General Ormsby Mitchel, the Union officer who declared the land of Mitchelville to belong to the slaves who found refuge there. The story continues through images of the town and of the faces determined create a better life for themselves and their families. 

“It’s one thing to read about some handful of people who did something important in the past,” reflected Jackie Rosswurm, a board member of the Mitchelville Preservation Project. “It’s quite another to be able to look into the eyes of those individuals, give a face to their accomplishments, and have their personal belongings within reach. It becomes intimate. And very real.”

Those images, combined with maps of Mitchelville and historic artifacts recovered from excavations of the Mitchelville site, bring the story to life. “Just seeing a bowl and spoon that were used daily creates an incredible connection with the items’ owner that transcends a 150 year gap,” stated Ms. Rosswurm, in reference to the display of cookware, glassware, utensils, tools and even a haunting showcase of shackles and restraints.

The exhibit may also offer viewers a chance to track their ancestors back to Mitchelville. An extensive list recovered from hospital records displays the names and ages of many Mitchelville residents.  

The exhibit will be open to the public Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10am to 2pm and on Sundays from 12pm to 3pm. Admission to the exhibit is free. Donations will be accepted and all proceeds will fund the Mitchelville Preservation Project and their continued efforts.

Founded in 2005, the Mitchelville Preservation Project, a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization, serves its mission by raising funds, hosting on-site programs and writing grants. The hard work and dedication of the MPP board members have garnered recognition from the National Park Service as part of the “National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.”

For more information on the exhibit and the Mitchelville Preservation Project, visit www.mitchelvillepreservationproject.com.

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