Union Army Major General Ormsby Mitchel arrived in HHI to replace General Hunter (who went on leave) and assumed command. Once he saw the living conditions of the formerly enslaved “contraband” in the refugee barracks, he directed a new “negro village” near Drayton Plantation to be built by and for the freedman/refugees, complete with homes, police protection, and a school – this effort became known as the Port Royal Experiment and was largely regarded as a precursor to the Reconstruction period.
General Mitchel visited First African Baptist Church and addressed members with a rousing speech, setting the vision for the new freedman’s town: “What will you do with the black man after liberating him?” We will make him a useful, industrious citizen. We will give him his family, his wife, his children – give him the earnings of the sweat of his brow, and as a man, we will give him what the Lord ordained him to have. This experiment is to give you freedom, position, homes, your families, property, your own soil. It seems to me a better time is coming … a better day is dawning.”
He also admonished the men to labor with vigilance and zeal, serve God, and to do all they can for their families. He advised the women to be careful of their children, “teach them to be clean, obedient and dutiful at all times”, to keep their house ‘neat and tidy and speak kindly to their husbands.’”
“The whole North, all the people in the Free States, are looking at you with great interest. […] If you fail, what a dreadful responsibility it will be when you come to die to feel that the only great opportunity you had for serving yourselves and your oppressed race was allowed to slip. But if you are successful, this plan will go all through the country.”
General Mitchel held a contest between the Union Army engineers and the freedmen to find the best cabin design; the design by the freedmen won and construction started on the new town.
The homes, each on a quarter-acre lot, were initially built by approximately 50 freedmen using wood from a sawmill and other raw materials. The freedmen were building up to six homes per day and were led by a black carpenter and a white engineer, who helped facilitate the acquisition of supplies. The homes also had land for growing crops like sweet potato and corn and other family activities. It is thought that, following General Mitchel’s death, the responsibility to build the homes fell to the homeowners themselves.
General Mitchel died only six weeks after arriving in Mitchelville from yellow fever – he never saw the town he envisioned come to fruition.