McKissick Museum explores ‘Dawn of Freedom’
By: Frenche`Brewer4@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-3691
During the end of the Civil War, some South Carolina slaves escaped to the northeastern end of Hilton Head Island, in a small community known as Mitchelville. Named for Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel, who oversaw the town’s creation, Mitchel wanted it to be a place where the slaves could make the transition to freedom through economic and political autonomy.
Mitchelville developed into a community of neatly arranged streets, quarter-acre lots, elected officials and a church. Its residents voted, had mandatory education for their children, owned homes, shopped in local stores and took the first steps toward full citizenship.
Mitchelville no longer exists, but an exhibit “Dawn of Freedom: The Freedmen’s Town of Mitchelville,”depicting the story of its creation, opens Feb. 18 – June 1 at the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum.
The premise for “Dawn of Freedom” began as a research project by public history graduate student JoAnn Zeise, who is now history curator for the S.C. State History Museum.
“I grew up on Hilton Head Island but had never learned the important history of the area and about the great number of formerly enslaved people who had escaped bondage to start their own community during the Civil War. Their story is important because it not only highlights one example of former slaves seizing freedom on their own and working to define that freedom, but it also examines issues that are at the heart of who we are as Americans, such as citizenship, freedom, the role of government, just to name a few,” Zeise says.
Edward Puchner, McKissick Museum exhibitions curator, says, “The story of Mitchelville gives us a chance to witness African-Americans overcoming the legacy of slavery from the earliest days of the Civil War to its final days, demonstrating how individual ex-slaves defined their new freedom on their own terms.”
Additional programs for “Dawn of Freedom” include a gallery lecture for students presented by Mitchelville historian Emory Campbell on March 5, and a lecture, “The Story of Sea Island Cotton” by Richard Porcher, professor emeritus of botany at The Citadel.