This Island in South Carolina Has the First Self-governed Town of Formerly Enslaved People in the U.S.

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As a Black American woman with deep Southern roots, I cherish opportunities to learn more about my history. My father was born on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, and my mother was born in a rural North Carolina town that still doesn’t have streetlights. They took part in the Great Migration, fleeing the Jim Crow South in the mid 1950s and early 60s to escape segregation and persecution. Both wound up in New York City, where I was born.

My parents taught me that sharing Black American stories of ingenuity and joy — not just despair and hardship — is powerful, and I pass this message on to my four-year-old son, Langston. One of those stories is about Mitchelville, a town that once stood on South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island.
Mitchelville’s legacy remains largely unknown outside the Lowcountry. It was the first self-governed town of formerly enslaved people in the United States. From the first time I heard about it, I knew I had to see it, so I flew down from New York for a four-day trip last July.
After landing at Hilton Head Island Airport, I went straight to the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park — and felt as if I had stepped back in time. At the entrance, a modest sign read WHERE FREEDOM BEGAN. I thought about that phrase as I walked into the 33-acre reserve, which is filled with massive oaks, Spanish moss, and palmetto trees.

During the Civil War, in late 1861, the Union Army captured Hilton Head. While plantation owners fled the advancing troops in boats, hundreds of enslaved people, then considered “contraband of war” by the Union Army, remained on the island. Because of Hilton Head’s remoteness (the first bridge to the mainland wasn’t built until 1956), not to mention the thousands of Union soldiers, the Confederate Army was unable to retake the land. In 1862, Union general Ormsby Mitchel worked with the community to establish the town of Mitchelville on the grounds of what had previously been the Fish Haul Creek Plantation. Some 3,000 formerly enslaved people lived in freedom there — a notable feat, considering slavery wasn’t abolished until 1865. After the war ended, the departure of the Union Army created a dearth of jobs, causing many residents to leave the island in search of work. The land was returned to the heir of the former owner. By the 1930s, there was nothing left of Mitchelville.
That day on the grounds, I met the park’s executive director, Ahmad Ward. A North Carolina native, he previously spent 15 years leading the education department at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama. Together we visited a replica of a praise house, where Mitchelville residents would have worshiped, organized, and socialized. Back then, Ward told me, the town consisted of well-ordered streets and modest but accommodating wooden homes, churches, and schools. Locals held elections, enacted laws, and collected taxes. “Mitchelville represents the movement of enslaved people toward self-sufficiency and complete independence,” Ward said. “This incredible landmark of American history existed on Hilton Head before the resorts and golf courses.”
Mitchelville was home to South Carolina’s first mandatory school system, and it was a vibrant community where people raised families, bartered goods and services, and grew and caught their own food: okra, rice, tomatoes, oysters, blue crabs, and shrimp. Many residents had roots in the region that is now Sierra Leone and Angola — a place where men and women were specially targeted for enslavement because of their expertise in growing rice, which was one of South Carolina’s cash crops in the early 18th century. They had survived unimaginable cruelty, yet found the fortitude to create a thriving safe haven.

Today the wooded park has walking trails, a wetland observation deck overlooking Port Royal Sound, a picnic pavilion, and beach access. Later this year, Ward’s team plans to build a reflection area and to re-create more structures where the original buildings once stood.
Over the next three days, I gained a deeper understanding of Mitchelville’s evolution and of Gullah culture, which originated from West Africans who were brought to the region between 1619 and 1808. Today Hilton Head is one of the many Sea Islands where Gullah culture thrives.
I had lunch with Carolyn Grant, co-author of the history book "Gullah Days: Hilton Head Islanders Before the Bridge, 1861–1956." On the deck of Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks, we ate fried seafood and red rice, a dish akin to West Africa’s jollof rice, while Grant told me about her work as director of communications for the town of Hilton Head, and how that role is enriched by her personal connection to the island. She grew up helping her parents run a restaurant (now closed) that served Gullah cuisine: dishes like gumbo and shrimp with okra.
Later that day I visited the Coastal Discovery Museum, where seventh-generation artisan Michael Smalls showed me how to weave a sweetgrass basket. Smalls, originally from Mount Pleasant, just north of Charleston, was taught the craft by his great-grandmother, the daughter of an enslaved woman from Mount Pleasant’s Laurel Hill Plantation. He is now the co-owner of Gullah Sweetgrass Baskets Creations, an online shop that also sells baskets at the museum.

I saw Grant and Ward again for dinner in a private home within the plush Sea Pines Resort, where I was staying. We were joined by two local Black entrepreneurs. Sonya Grant, Carolyn’s niece, runs a lifestyle brand, Gullah T’s N’ Tings, that raises pride and awareness of Gullah heritage via T-shirts, handbags, and accessories. Omololoa Campbell, who goes by Lola, is an attorney and the owner of Binya, a boutique in the Spanish Wells neighborhood. The products she sells, which range from books to barbecue sauce and jewelry, are made almost exclusively by South Carolinians. Over a Gullah-inspired dinner of deviled crab with shrimp and okra served over white rice, we conversed, laughed, and fellowshipped as though we’d known each other for years.
When I stopped by Binya on my last day on Hilton Head, I met Lola’s mother, Della Campbell, who owns Spanish Wells Seafood & Produce, a seasonal food stand. There I bumped into Lola’s uncle, Emory Campbell, an island native and respected community leader. His book "Gullah Cultural Legacies" records the area’s proverbs, folk tales, and vocabulary terms.
As he waited for his order of fish and sweet potatoes, I asked him to share one thing he wants people to know about Mitchelville. “We’re connected by kinship,” he said. “You know your fifteenth cousin here.”
Although he and I have no blood relations, his response reminded me that all humans share a connection. I felt a deep sense of pride on the island, a feeling that I think many Black Americans rarely experience while traveling in the United States, especially below the Mason-Dixon Line. I know I will return to Mitchelville one day with my son. He deserves to have this awesome feeling, too.

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