HILTON HEAD ISLAND — Video at bottom: St. Helena's Penn Center
There is a stretch of beach here, accessible only to those who get permission to drive through the gated community of Port Royal Plantation, where the remains of Fort Walker stand as broken testimony to Confederate hopes.
Fort Walker was one of a pair of military installations guarding Port Royal Sound from Union attack. Seven months after Fort Sumter surrendered to Confederate forces, it was ground zero when that assault came.
The Union victory, which took only five hours, was a transformative moment for the Sea Islands.
On Nov. 7, 1861, Confederate power in South Carolinas Lowcountry was shattered like glass. Today, the shards gleam in the sunlight of freedom and opportunity.
That Abraham Lincolns men occupied the Sea Islands made possible what then was all but unthinkable to most white Americans: black education, black self-governance, black land ownership, black soldiering.
The Union victory opened the door to the heroics of a slave who would rise to become a founder of the S.C. Republican Party, an early advocate of public education and an important voice in state and national politics. In the years that followed, Hilton Head Island would move from a plantation society based on cotton to plantations, based on retirement and recreation, that still exist today. And there is, of course, Parris Island, the legendary Marine Corps training facility that has its roots in the Unions capture of the area a century and half ago.
It was a very small battle, said Stephen Wise, director of the Parris Island Museum. But it changes everything. It changes the whole history of the area.
It also changed the history of South Carolina and the United States, and continues to do so, even today.
The dawn of freedom
The U.S. military long had salivated over Port Royal Sound with its natural harbor, deeper than any other on the East Coast south of New York. It would be the perfect spot for some type of military installation, they figured. And so, when the Civil War broke out in April 1861, the Union had detailed knowledge of the area and understood its potential importance.
Port Royal Sound, where the largest of ships could safely anchor, would be an ideal spot to coal and resupply Union ships that were blockading Southern ports.
In November 1861, an enormous Union flotilla 16 warships, more than 70 vessels in total set sail to capture the area.
Walter Mack, executive director of Penn Center, which was set up afterward on St. Helena Island as a school for freedmen, says the areas slaves, called Gullahs, referred to the battle that followed as The Day the Big Gun Shoot.
Local white residents did not wait for the Union victory to flee. Warned by Confederate military leaders about the impending battle, they fled inland, leaving behind their property land, homes and slaves.
Their decision to leave had a series of impacts that were felt through the years that followed and continue to be felt to this day. Many of the landowners who fled did not pay taxes on the property they left behind. That made it possible for the newly reinstated federal government to seize the land, setting some aside to be used or sold. But by whom? The answer came quickly.
The Emancipation Proclamation was, in 1861, two years away from being issued, but the flight of white slaveholders raised a new question: Was a slave a slave when he had no master or when that master was far away?
As Union forces consolidated their hold on St. Helena, Parris and Hilton Head islands, slaves answered that question themselves. They poured into the area, believing freedom would be theirs if they could reach land occupied by Lincolns forces.
But the swelling number of slaves was a headache for the Unions military leadership.
In 1862, Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel told Lincoln he had a solution for some of the slaves on Hilton Head Island. He would have them move to a location about a mile away from Fort Walker.
There, in a community that later came to be known as Mitchelville, the former slaves were left on their own. As the Civil War raged, they built houses, set up a local government and created a system of compulsory education, possibly the first in state history.
Today, only a few markers next to wooded tracts of land note what slaves accomplished at Mitchelville. But a group of black Hilton Head residents wants to change that.
They have formed a 501(c)3 organization called the Mitchelville Preservation Project to save Historic Mitchelville from oblivion; to reveal the uniquely American story of freedmen who created a culture of sacrifice, resistance and resilience in a quest to define an inclusive freedom.
Thomas Barnwell, a developer who is the projects director, said he is trying to raise $10 million to build a series of period-accurate structures on a 16-acre tract of old Mitchelville land that the town of Hilton Head Island plans to lease to the organization.
A memorial and welcome center would tell visitors the story of Mitchelville. The idea, project members said, is something akin to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
First, though, the organization wants an archaeological examination of the site to be performed so a complete picture of life at 1860s Mitchelville can be drawn.
We cannot tell you 100 percent today exactly whats on that site because we dont know whats there, Barnwell said. We have some general plans. We would like to trace all aspects of life on Hilton Head Island at the dawn of freedom. We would like to trace the economics, the food, the lifestyle. We would like to know about the environmental conditions, fishing, the psychological and the spiritual.
Asked recently why the project wasnt undertaken before, organizers looked at one another with pursed lips. They noted they are working in collaboration with the town of Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County now.
Then Barnwell, whose family stretches back generations on Hilton Head, addressed the question more directly.
People didnt really feel comfortable and didnt want to talk about it, Barnwell said. White people just didnt want to talk about it because it was a successful activity.
Ben Williams, a former college dean and local history buff who has been helping with the project, said Mitchelville represented the can-do spirit black Americans used to rise from slavery and, later, to help end segregation.
The things (Mitchelvilles residents) left was the legacy for Selma, Montgomery, Memphis, Williams said. It was the courage to make something out of nothing.
The rise of black education
While Mitchelville was being established, a pair of Northern white women became part of a boom of interest in what would become of the former slaves on the Sea Islands.
Laura Towne and Ellen Murray primarily were interested in medical issues. Their work, though, was important in the founding of Penn Center on St. Helena Island.
Towne and Murray taught at the school, set up on 50 acres of land studded with moss-draped oak trees. The land was donated by a freedman, Hastings Gantt.
At Penn Center, as at Mitchelville, former slaves learned to do for themselves, and education was at the heart of their hopes for the future.
After the war, other groups in particular, Northern missionary groups, some of which had first been drawn to the Union-seized Lowcountry spread similar schools for blacks across the state. Today, many remain, including Benedict and Allen in Columbia, Claflin in Orangeburg and Morris in Sumter.
From 1862 through 1953, Penn was an education complex. In the years that followed, it took on a new role as a community center and a meeting place for civil rights figures, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who quietly slipped into the complex to strategize and plan protests and marches in the 1960s.
The record of him coming was kept secret, even from the local sheriff, Mack said. They wouldnt tell anybody. You never knew who would want to hurt Dr. King.
King stayed in Gantt Cottage during his trips to Penn. A new cottage, built farther away from the heart of the complex, was to house him on a trip in 1968.
King was assassinated before he could stay there.
Today, the small building is empty. Its front porch offers a view of marsh, water and trees.
Kings trips to Penn add to its historic importance, but for Gardenia Simmons-White, Penn represents more than a place where an important man stayed. For her, its where young, black Sea Islands residents learned they could do anything they dreamed.
This is the gem of St. Helena Island, said Simmons-White, a 76-year-old retired nurse who moved back to the island from New York in 1992.
Simmons-White graduated from Penn in 1952, in the schools next-to-last graduating class. She now volunteers in Penns museum.
This is our passion, she said as she stood under a massive oak tree at the center of Penns campus.
The new plantation society
Long after its days as a school, Penns work goes on.
In November of each year, thousands descend on St. Helena for the Heritage Days Celebration, which is a major fundraiser for Penn and an important tourism draw for the area.
Penn has partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build four homes on St. Helena Island. Its leaders have worked with Beaufort County to help local residents hold on to land they might otherwise lose through tax sales.
Penn operates as an early childhood center and an after-school program for the children of local workers, many of whom take long bus rides to Hilton Head Island to work.
The irony of how poor and mostly black Sea Islands residents during slavery and now work to make life comfortable for wealthy, mostly white Hilton Head Island residents is not lost on Mack.
They cant live on Hilton Head, Mack said. Its too expensive. They catch a bus to go work on Hilton Head. Weve got this cute name for it. We call it the slave bus that goes to the plantation.
While the workers are away, Mack said, Penn works to instill in their children the same pride and self-confidence that took Simmons-White to New York and back. Penn teaches them basket weaving and net making. It teaches them who they are and what their ancestors accomplished.
This is important, Mack said. This is their own history and culture.
Birth of the military economy
On a sunny afternoon in late January, about seven miles from Penn Center, a horse-drawn carriage transports a pair of tourists past an elegant white home on Prince Street in Beaufort.
The carriage operator explains to the tourists that the home once belonged to a former slave named Robert Smalls. Unless the carriage ride were to last hours, there would not be enough time to detail Smalls contributions to South Carolina and to the nation.
Like so much else in Beaufort County, those contributions were made easier by the Union presence at Port Royal Sound in the early years of the Civil War.
Despite its jaw-dropping dramatics, Smalls story is still not widely known.
In May 1862, Smalls, a 23-year-old wheelman on an armed Confederate transport ship, the Planter, commandeered the vessel and steered it to the Union blockade line outside Charleston harbor as the Planters white officers slept onshore. Smalls actions brought the Union a prize, just as they brought freedom to him and to several family members. Smalls became a celebrity, but his daring extended far beyond delivering a single ship to the Union.
Less than three months after taking the Planter, Smalls met personally with Lincoln and his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, lobbying them to permit black men to serve as soldiers.
Lincoln and Stanton agreed, and Smalls returned to South Carolina to help recruit men for the 1st and 2nd S.C. Volunteers, the first U.S. Army regiments raised from African-American men who had been slaves.
Their service disproved the notion that black men could not be effective soldiers and moved the Union several steps closer to total victory. When they died, some were buried in what later became one of the countrys first national cemeteries, designated for use by military veterans and their dependents.
Today, the cemetery is known as Beaufort National Cemetery, and African-Americans account for 17.3 percent of the U.S. military, more than one in six soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and members of the Coast Guard.
Smalls was elected in 1864 as a delegate to the Union convention that nominated Lincoln for re-election. Still involved in political and military matters in South Carolina, Smalls did not attend.
After the war, Smalls was as a political force, helping found the S.C. Republican Party and using his base of black support in the Beaufort County area to make the GOP a potent alternative to a Democratic Party whose leaders had agitated for war.
Smalls was elected as a Republican to the S.C. House of Representatives, the S.C. Senate and, later, to the U.S. House of Representatives. He pushed for the establishment of compulsory education in South Carolina, and lobbied, successfully, for the establishment of a Navy station at Parris Island.
That Navy base later was transferred to Charleston, but its facilities soon had a new use as a Marine Corps training base.
Male Marine recruits east of the Mississippi and all female recruits are trained at Parris Island. The recruit depot is a major part of the economic lifeblood of the region, attracting more than 120,000 families to visit Parris Island each year.
A 2010 study conducted for Beaufort County showed that military installations in the county a Marine air station and Parris Island, which had its start with the Union occupation after the Big Gun Shoot had an economic impact of $1.2 billion on the local economy.
Federal military posts, which began with the Unions seizure of Port Royal and now dot Columbia, Lower Richland and Sumter in the Midlands, contribute $13 billion a year to the S.C. economy.
The battle of life
After the war, Smalls bought the home of his former master. Legend has it that he allowed the wife of his former master to live there when she became old and frail. A book on Smalls, published in 1958, claims Smalls offered her a house that he owned on the outskirts of Beaufort and in Washington he tried to find work for her children.
That book also details visits the woman made to the Smalls home.
The homes current owner, retired Wisconsin radiologist David Atwell, likes to think Smalls showed kindness to the wife of his former master. Atwell and his wife, Marilyn, have spent years and more money than they will discuss publicly fixing and maintaining the house.
They have pictures of Smalls on the walls of the home, not far from their own family pictures. The home is not open for public tours, but the Atwells often work with the Beaufort County Historical Society to allow groups to come through.
David Atwell said Smalls story fascinates him.
Being a hero allowed him to achieve the status here in Beaufort County that would allow him to do other things, Atwell said.
Smalls is buried in the graveyard of a small church in downtown Beaufort. His nearby bust is green with age. Its inscription comes from words that Smalls spoke in 1895 as South Carolina was adopting a new state constitution, designed to wipe away the black empowerment that he spent a lifetime working for.
My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere, he said. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.
Video: St. Helena's Penn Center
What its executive director and two former students have to say about the groundbreaking school
Reach senior writer Wayne Washington at (803) 771-8385.