Reconstructing Historic Mitchelville
Article by Polly Goss
In 1862, General Ormsby Mitchel of the Union Army created a town for freed slaves on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Mitchelville, as the town became known, was the first self-governed community of freed slaves in the country. After visiting the Mitchelville site in 2012, Barbara Hamberg, Department of Philosophy and Religion, knew that students needed to know about this part of their state’s history, so she and Dr. Abel Bartley, Department of History, formed a Creative Inquiry team to research the people of Mitchelville.
As the students began their research on Mitchelville, their project evolved into three different projects: Reconstructing Historic Mitchelville; The Churches of Mitchelville; and Upstate Black Communities Then and Now: Their People and Their Places. The teams have a research niche which has many communities interested in a collaboration. For example, the team has been approached to study the history of Daufuskie Island and the churches in Anderson, South Carolina.
The students in each of the Creative Inquiry projects collect oral histories and conduct genealogical research. This type of research requires work online as well as in-person. One of the methods the teams use to investigate geneology is through the online software Ancestry.com®. In October 2013, the students had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Kim Harrison, a senior account executive from Ancestry.com® and to present plaques to the descendants of original Mitchelville settlers.
Bartley teaches the teams about the historical aspects of the projects. They analyze tax records, cemetery records, record oral histories and use library resources to find information on their projects. The final products are then presented to the relevant communities. Presentations of the students’ research will be posted on the Daufuskie Island and Hilton Head Island Heritage Library websites.
Students also learn methods for conducting oral history interviews. The team’s trips to Hilton Head Island allow them to utilize their newly learned research methods and collect more background knowledge through dialogues and networking. Twice a year, the students travel to Hilton Head Island to hear lectures, visit sites and collect oral histories. The churches and communities they research welcome the students with open arms, allowing the students the opportunity to meet CEOs, leaders of non-profits and artists in the community. According to Hamberg, these communities have a deep appreciation for the students’ work and make an effort to introduce the students to as many community leaders as possible. The trips are an essential part of each of the Creative Inquiry projects, providing a tangible component to their research. “It’s a place for students to go and learn about their history, and that’s important,” Hamberg said.
Community partners are imperative when conducting this type of historical research. From the beginning, the Heritage Library located on Hilton Head Island has assisted in organizing site visits, locating documents and providing resources to conduct the genealogical research. The Bertha Lee Strickland Cultural Museum in Seneca, South Carolina has also acted as a community partner to the team.
Barbara J. Speziale