“We believe this is where freedom began for African-Americans,” says Ahmad Ward, gazing across a tranquil forest clearing on the northeastern edge of Hilton Head. This South Carolina island is famous for its world-class golf courses, sandy beaches and top-end resorts. But it is also a place with great historical significance. In the shade of towering live oak trees, their branches draped with wispy Spanish moss, Ward explains that we are standing on the site of Mitchelville, the first self-governed town of freed slaves in America.
In 1861, early in the Civil War, Union forces seized Hilton Head, prompting the island’s rice, cotton and indigo plantation owners to flee. Former slaves flocked here and, in 1862, established a pioneering town, naming it after a Union general, Ormsby Mitchel. They built almost 500 homes, founded several churches, drafted a legal code, elected officials and introduced a mandatory education system. “These folks went from being property to owning property,” says Ward, executive director of the historic Mitchelville Freedom Park.
Mitchelville later declined and was eventually destroyed by a hurricane in 1893 but it remains a potent source of inspiration. “Mitchelville provides a positive-slanted story from that era. With no outside assistance, they made it on their own,” says Ward, whose organisation plans to reconstruct sections of the town and create a museum (in the meantime a selection of Mitchelville artefacts are on display at the nearby Westin hotel).
Mitchelville provides a gateway into the storied African-American heritage of the South Carolina Lowcountry, a ragged sweep of peninsulas, inlets, islands and marshland. This hot, humid region is part of the 640km Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, created by Congress in 2006 to recognise the unique culture of the 200,000 Gullah-Geechee people, the descendants of enslaved West and Central African people who live along the coast of the Carolinas (where they are known as Gullah), Georgia and northern Florida (where they are known as Geechee). The Gullah-Geechee people have retained their own creole language, identity and customs.
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I got an insight into Gullah culture in the charming town of Beaufort, a short drive north of Hilton Head. On a sultry evening in the courtyard of the Beaufort Inn, I watched a haunting performance by the Gullah Kinfolk, who use traditional songs like Amazing Grace and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and spoken word to tell the story of the Atlantic slave trade, from the shores of Africa, through the Middle Passage to the plantations of South Carolina and beyond.
Afterwards, the group’s leader, the singer, storyteller and historian Anita Singleton-Prather addressed the audience. She spoke about how Gullah culture had influenced everything from the language and spoken cadence of people in the South to musical genres like jazz, ragtime, gospel, R&B and hip hop. “When I was younger a lot of people were ashamed of being Gullah – fortunately, my parents didn’t teach me to be ashamed,” she says. “Now [Gullah culture] is on the up, it’s not associated with shame anymore.”
From Beaufort, I travelled east to the island of St Helena, home to the Penn Center, one of the first schools for free African-Americans. Founded in 1862 – the same year as Mitchelville – the centre later became an important community organisation and played a significant role in the Civil Rights movement. Today, the centre’s museum showcases Gullah history, culture and artwork. Among the highlights is a collection of intricately woven sweetgrass baskets, one of the most distinctive Gullah crafts.
I finished my trip in the state capital, Charleston, whose well-preserved historic districts are filled with beautiful 18th- and 19th-century townhouses, cobbled streets, and palmetto trees. The local foodie scene is flourishing, and here too Gullah culture is evident. Enslaved people were specifically brought from Africa’s “Rice Coast”, which stretched from Senegal to Sierra Leone and Liberia, to labour on South Carolina’s rice plantations. Okra, peanuts and benne seeds (similar to sesame seeds) were among the ingredients that travelled with them and are now staples of South Carolina cuisine. Local dishes like red rice (which is flavoured with tomatoes and resembles the West African jollof rice) and Hoppin’ John (a one-pot combo of rice, beans and pork) also have Gullah roots.
African and African-American cooking styles and flavours also influenced barbecue in the South, award-winning pitmaster Rodney Scott tells me. At the High Wire Distillery, I sample his delicious “whole hog barbecue”: smoky, deeply savoury pulled pork, meaty ribs the size of my forearm, collard greens, and unctuous mac and cheese. Afterwards, Scott, who has restaurants in Charleston and Birmingham (Alabama), spoke about the local significance of barbecue. “I grew up in the southeast of the state in a town of 400 people,” he says. “At the end of the harvest, for graduations, birthdays, weddings, one person would cook a whole hog for a few families. It was a communal activity.”
On my final day, I explored Charleston's French Quarter, which boasts some of the town's finest architecture. In the heart of the neighbourhood is the excellent Old Slave Mart Museum, once an indoor slave market, now a place that tells the story of slavery in South Carolina and its abolition.
Outside I got chatting to guide Crystal Kornickey, who told me there were once 40 brick-making plantations in the state. “Enslaved people not only built the buildings of Charleston, they also made the building materials,” she says. “If you look, many bricks still contain the finger or even hand prints of the enslaved people who made them.”
I hadn’t noticed any fingerprints before my conversation with Crystal – afterwards, I saw them everywhere. A left thumbprint in the wall of the Shops of Historic Charleston Foundation. A right thumbprint near the Dock Street Theater’s box office. Two tiny finger marks below a wrought-iron balcony.
Today, Gullah communities face significant challenges, notably the loss of traditional land because of a lack of clear property titles, rising property taxes and pressure from developers. In Hilton Head, the contrast between modest Gullah neighbourhoods and the island’s palatial gated communities is stark. But there are also signs of hope. At Mitchelville, Ahmad Ward is running an educational programme to develop the leadership skills of local high school students, some of whom are descendants of the original Mitchelville residents. “Gullah history is a lost history [but] we believe the story of Mitchelville has legs,” he told me. “For young people, it says: ‘If they can do it, so can we’.”
Top image: Hilton Head in South Carolina © John McManus Photographer/Shutterstock