Written by Helen Ross
At the toe is Harbour Town Golf Links with its iconic red-and-white lighthouse. This week the diabolical Pete Dye creation hosts the popular RBC Heritage, which has taken on added significance as one of the PGA TOUR’s designated events with a $20 million purse.
About 12 miles and 30 minutes away, nestled up against the heel of that shoe, is an equally iconic, if lesser-known property, marked by a sprawling 250-year-old oak tree called Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park (HMFP). It is the site of the first self-governed settlement of formerly enslaved people in the United States.
On Thursday afternoon, four teenagers who have trained or are training to be junior docents, or mentees, at Mitchelville will be guests of the RBC Heritage. Tripp Nicol III and Masani Ward will work as the standard bearers for Cameron Young, Webb Simpson and Scottie Scheffler while Alissa Duong and Santiago From will volunteer in the group with Matt Kuchar, Jim Furyk and J.J. Spaun.
“It will just be kind of cool to like get on the course and see professional golfers play on it,” said Tripp, who started playing golf when he was 8 years old and recently got a new set of clubs.
The four are products of HMFP and its MAGIC program, which stands for Modeling Our Ancestors to Generate Influence and Change. MAGIC is one of the many organizations supported by the RBC Heritage, which recently topped $50 million in charitable giving.
The MAGIC program is more than a deep dive into history for the teenagers, who are in eighth to 12th grade, though. It’s a way to develop life skills through interactions with Toastmasters and other public speakers, as well as historians, marketing specialists and business leaders. They also learn from people like 104-year-old Ethel Rivers, whom everyone calls Mother Rivers and whose ancestors lived in Mitchelville.
The members of the MAGIC program have also taken field trips to places like the Charleston slave market, attended plays and explored museums. Visits to area companies like Boeing, a presenting sponsor of the RBC Heritage, expose the teens to a variety of job possibilities, too.
The RBC Heritage grant has helped make all that possible.
“I can’t say enough as to how much we appreciate the funding,” said Joyce White, director of programs and interpretation for HMFP. “The first year that we did it was a local funding source that we had, and we kind of put it together and kept putting dollars here and dollars there. But when, when the RBC came and gave us that opportunity of the money that they gave us, it was like, oh, this is wonderful. This is absolutely wonderful.”
Nicklas Bearden, a local middle school science teacher, musician and outdoors enthusiast, oversees the MAGIC program. There are six participants this year who were chosen from applicants at Bluffton and Hilton Head high schools, as well as the Boys and Girls Club.
The MAGIC participants meet once a month. Bearden says he looks for students who are self-motivated and eager to learn but with a penchant for volunteer service that must be part of “their heart.” The life skills MAGIC teaches help the students become comfortable with telling the story of Mitchelville, a place he calls “powerful” where freedom was born in the South.
“It’s been very fascinating on my end to observe the ‘a-ha’ moments that they’re having and starting to kind of connect the dots in their U.S. history and understanding of what’s kind of gone on here on the island,” Bearden says. “A lot of the kids whenever they find out about the program have never really even heard of Mitchellville, which is one of the reasons why we’re so motivated and passionate about getting it out. … It just blows their mind.”
Mitchelville was founded after Union forces won the Battle of Port Royal in 1861 and took over the island. The Confederate plantation owners fled and enslaved people, many of whom were of Gullah Geechee descent and kidnapped from West Africa, sought refuge with the Union soldiers at Fort Howell. Within days, more than 400 former slaves, called “contrabands” at the time, had gathered and the number continued to grow.
A military order freeing the enslaved was issued in April of 1862. Five months later, General Ormsby Mitchel began construction on a village – later named in his honor – for the freedmen on the Fish Haul (Drayton) Plantation. For context, the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t issued until Jan. 1, 1863.
“It was still during the time that slavery was legal,” says Masani, a high school senior headed for Hampton University in the fall. “… So, it’s just very unique that they were able to do things and have their own economy and produce their own goods. It’s a very amazing story that many people don’t know about. So that’s the organization, their entire goal is to get other people throughout the country and throughout the world to learn about Mitchelville’s story and how Hilton Head is so significant in our country’s history because of it. So, I just find it really fascinating.”
At its height, Mitchelville had more than 3,000 residents. Missionaries taught the former slaves – the school there was the first compulsory school in South Carolina. The village had several churches and more than 450 houses with small plots of land for raising vegetables. Stores sold coffee pots, pie plates, clothes, brooms, brushes, tobacco, and shovels, among other things.
By the late 1800s, though, Mitchelville was in decline. The Union Army was gone, taking jobs with it. Residents began to fan out and farm. Some freedmen preferred to return to familiar environs. Still, the town, by now a “kinship-based community,” survived until the early 1920s.
Today, the big old live oak tree still stands much like the lighthouse marks the other end of the island. As visitors enter the property, they see replicas of some of the homes and the Praise House, as well as plaques marking other key spots, many of them identified during archeological excavations that have uncovered artifacts dating to indigenous times. Walk toward the beach and there’s a flat-bottomed bateau boat on display.
“It’s kind of like nature meeting history,” says Masani, whose father Ahmad Ward is the executive director of HMFP.
The Praise House, where community members would get together to worship and have town meetings, is one of Masani’s favorite places.
“I enjoy it even more because during the Juneteenth celebration that’s where they’ll have performances and singers who are telling stories to their music probably in the same way that they would be doing in the 1860s because you have the freedom songs and the Negro spirituals and things like that,” she says. “… It kind of takes you back to the 1860s and how they would’ve worshiped and gathered during that time.”
When she was a MAGIC participant, Masani helped conduct tours at Mitchelville. Tripp, Alissa, and Santiago are learning to do the same. In the process of learning the history, though, the teenagers learned things about themselves.
“It has helped me with communication skills, and it has also helped me with how to present yourself to someone,” says Tripp, who plays trumpet in his high school band and has wanted to be a firefighter since he was 3 years old. “Just life skills that you would use in the future like if you were going to apply for a job or just meeting someone new.”
Masani acknowledges that there were times she was nervous when she started the MAGIC program. But like Tripp is doing, she learned to be a confident speaker who is comfortable in a variety of situations, not only with peers but with professionals twice her age. The story of Mitchelville has given her that same kind of determination – and pride.
“It kind of gives the students a feeling of confidence and a boost that you can do, like whatever you put your mind to because these people were able to do it when like the entire system of the United States was created to keep them at a position of inferiority,” Masani says. “But they still were able to obtain their freedom and create an environment for themselves where they can be free, safe, happy and reconnect with their families maybe that they might have been separated from.
“So, it makes me feel like as you go to college and eventually have a career for myself that I can produce positive change and I can work with other people even if goals seemed difficult. I think it just gives me kind of confidence that I can do it too because they were able to do it with far less resources than I have now. I think that’s really cool.”