I love hearing about interesting projects that incorporate family history into history on a larger scale. Last fall when I was in Utah, my friend Kim Harrison, who is the product manager for our institutional accounts, told me about a unique project that is commemorating the first self-governed town of freed slaves in America.
During the Civil War, Hilton Head Island, which was also referred to as Port Royal, was under Union control beginning in November 1861. Slaves fleeing from the mainland and nearby islands, and African Americans that had stayed behind after the island’s slave owners fled the Yankee invasion, flocked to the Union camp, where they were housed in military camps that quickly became overcrowded.
General Ormsby Mitchel proposed that the newly-freed slaves form a self-governed village where they could live independently on the lands where some of them once worked as slaves. By 1865, Mitchelville was home to 1,500 residents, many of whom worked for the military as blacksmiths, coopers, clerks, cooks, and launderers, among other things. When the military left in 1868, the community turned to farming and other commercial pursuits to sustain themselves.
The population peaked in around 1890 at about 3,000 residents, but by the 1930s it had declined to around 300. In 2005 the Mitchelville Preservation Project was formed with the mission to “replicate, preserve, and sustain a historically significant site and to educate the public about the sacrifice, resilience and perseverance of the freedmen 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.” Plans are underway to recreate the historic setting with Mitchelville Freedom Park, which will span 32 acres and include an educational kiosk.
So what does all this have to do with family history? Well, Clemson University’s Pan-African Studies Program is working with the Heritage Library Foundation, the Mitchelville Preservation Project, and Ancestry.com to identify and trace the family histories of those original 1,500 Mitchelville residents. Kim Harrison attended an event last fall and worked with the students (pictured below) who were involved in the project. While none of the students were history majors, they all embraced the journey of discovering the roots of this historic community. Kim gave a presentation on how to use Ancestry.com for their research. At a formal event, the students met with descendants of Mitchelville’s original residents and presented them with tree ring plaques with engraved pedigrees documenting their island roots.
It is a wonderful thing when a community, a local library, and college students can come together to preserve the legacy of a historic community—one family history at a time. If you’d like to learn more about the Mitchelville project, you can visit their website or keep up with the project via their Facebook page. If you’re a descendant of one of the residents of Mitchelville, you can contact the Heritage Library Foundation which is spearheading the People of Mitchelville project.