Less Traveled

Page Ivey

SOUTH CAROLINA INSIDER

 

A bench by the road where freed slaves flourished

Posted 6/1/2013 8:18:00 PM

Can a park bench be inspirational?

Well, ask Greenville native Charles Townes, whose Nobel Prize winning formula for the first laser came to him while he was sitting on one in Washington, D.C. His “Oh Boy!” moment is immortalized on a bench in downtown Greenville.

Now, folks contemplating the first self-governing community of freed slaves at Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island have the opportunity for their own “Aha!” moment.

The bench was placed earlier this year through a partnership of the Toni Morrison Society and the Mitchelville Preservation Project. The society dedicated to the author – also a Nobel laureate – has installed seven other benches as part of its Bench by the Road series.

The benches were inspired by a comment Morrison made in a 1989 interview about a lack of monuments where people could go and contemplate slavery.

“There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There is no 300-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road.”

The first bench was placed on Sullivans Island near Charleston in 2008. Others are in Ohio, Paris and Washington, D.C.

South Carolina has many negative ties to the beginning and perpetuation of slavery, but Mitchelville provides insight into its role at the end of slavery.

The town was built by freed slaves on land set aside by U.S. Gen. Ormsby Mitchel in 1861 after Union troops took control of Hilton Head Island from the Confederate Army. The townsfolk built homes, elected their leaders, wrote laws and mandated that the children of Mitchelville would be educated.

By the end of the war, the town had about 1,500 residents.

Today, little remains of the original town, except the First African Baptist Church and Queen Chapel. But the people of the area, known as Gullah, carry on the traditions of their ancestors.

Mitchelville is a part of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor that celebrates African-American contributions to life and culture in America.