Wade In the Water
Reconstruction, then and now (Part II)
Sara A. Lewis: Welcome to Point South. I'm your host Sara A. Lewis of the Oxford American. This is part two of a story about the South Carolina lowcountry. If you haven't listened to part one, you should go do that now and then come back.
[background of water and seagulls]
SAL: In the last episode, we learned about black residents of Edisto Island and their role in the revolutionary experiment to reconstruct American freedom. When Confederates abandoned the island, the black people they had held in bondage seized their freedom by distributing and working the land, building independent and self-sufficient communities—only to have their land taken and restored to their former enslavers.
Today we will visit St. Helena, a distinctly rural island despite its location just outside of Beaufort. Its population of 10,000 continues to be an epicenter of Gullah Geechee culture.
Then we’ll explore Hilton Head, the immensely popular tourist destination for beach vacations and golf getaways. The island welcomes two and a half million visitors each year.
These communities teach us about the promise of Reconstruction and the long struggle to fight dispossession and erasure.
During and immediately after the Civil War, these islands were home to a grand and inspiring experiment. Thousands of enslaved people had been freed as secessionist slave holders fled their lands to avoid the advancing US army and navy. And for a while, at least newly freed people on these islands were able to build new communities that reflected their visions of freedom. Autonomy made possible by land ownership and community institutions. They began new lives in a government-sponsored project that came to be known as the Port Royal experiment.
Lola Campbell: It was an experiment that was successful because those citizens of Mitchellville were able to create a community that thrived and that was able to stand on its own.
SAL: This is Lola Campbell, the board chair for Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park.
LC: The mission, uh, of historic Mitchelville Freedom Park is to, uh, tell the story, um, the, the one of the greatest untold stories of American history, I believe. It’s to tell the story of Mitchelville, which was the first self-governed, uh, settlement, in, uh, by freed slaves in the United States.
SAL: Mitchelville was home to nearly 3000 freed people and was one of the many sites of the Port Royal experiment. Now the Mitchelville Freedom Park works to educate the public about the community that once called Mitchelville home.
LC: Um, you know, Hilton Head has for years been a great spot for people to come and vacation. But I really want cultural tourism to be added to that, you know, to to, to that moniker for Hilton Head. Um, not just golf, not just tennis, not, you know, just biking. I want people to know that, you know, there’s a rich history, there’s rich culture, there's rich heritage here, and, um, and everyone should know about it.
I think the only way that you really can understand it is, is to come here and see it.
SAL: At its height, Mitchellville had a mayor, civic officers, and city councilmen. The settlement grew to over 200 acres on a former plantation that bordered the shoreline.
Most residents worked for the military, unloading supply ships, serving as waiters and housekeepers for union officers, staffing the hospital, and growing food. The formerly enslaved continued to harvest cotton, the country's leading export, but now for a wage.
LC: There are some, you know, great things that have been put in based on what we think existed back during that Reconstruction era. Um, you know, you’ll walk into the park, you’ll see, a replica of a praise house, a replica of a general store.
SAL: In addition to re-creations of the buildings that once stood, there is an actual bateaux, the wooden flat bottom rowboat that islanders used for transportation.
The Mitchelville settlement is in a peaceful, wooded area just off a marsh, with access to the waterways that connect the lowlands but isolated from plantation communities.
LC: I imagine they went back to, you know, life before arriving to the shores of South Carolina. Um, and you know, what life probably looked like a bit for them, um, in Africa.
As a Gullah person myself, the church has just always been the anchor of the community.
That’s the place where people would have meetings and gatherings to talk about, you know, what to do next in the community.
SAL: Mitchelville also instated the first law for compulsory schooling in the state of South Carolina. All children ages 6 to 15 were required to go to school.
LCl: Those citizens knew that their children had to be educated in order to be able to move on, um, to, to bigger, better, brighter things and futures. Um, and that, that theme of education has carried through through many generations here on this island.
SAL: The community at Mitchelville flourished for over five years, through the end of the Civil War. But as the dust settled, the military moved on from Mitchelville, taking with them the essential jobs and protections from attacks by Confederates that many of the town’s residents relied on. Some left Hilton Head seeking better opportunities for work and self-sufficiency. Some moved to larger existing settlements further inland. Some formed new farming collectives on the grounds of former plantations. But in short order, the town began to decline.
Eventually in 1893, a catastrophic hurricane decimated what remained of Mitchelville.
[Gospel choir sings “Wade in the Water”]
But because the federal government still owned the land the community was built on, it was never retaken by its old owners, the planters, some of the wealthiest in the nation who up until this point produced some of the world's most valuable cotton.
Even now, more than a century after Mitchelville's decline, its legacy of land ownership is one that Gullah Geechee people on Hilton Head fight to defend.
In April of 2023, Josephine Wright, the 93-year-old owner of a 1.8 acre lot on the island,
filed a counterclaim against a development firm seeking to sue her off her own land. Wright had inherited the land from her late husband, Samuel Wright, Sr, whose family had held it since the Civil War. The Wright family is Gullah Geechee. Their story is an example of how black landowners continue to face harassment and intimidation.
The Wrights also embody a history of land ownership that has given Sea Islanders a longstanding place of power and community.
Marie Gibbs: Our ancestors said “they're not making any more land. This is it.” So we are obligated to hold on to what we've got cuz it one didn't come easy and you picked 400 pounds of cotton for land, you have to hold onto it, cause they're not make anymore. This is our generation wealth right here.
SAL: Dr. Marie Gibbs is the director at the Penn Center on St. Helena, an island to the north of Hilton Head and a community at the center of the Port Royal Experiment.
MG: I am a resident, a long time resident of this island and I'm a Gullah girl.
Um, and right today you are on the site of the first school in America for emancipated slaves.
SAL: Funded by Quaker philanthropists from Pennsylvania, the Penn School was established in 1862 to educate the formerly enslaved inhabitants of the Lowcountry.
Gibbs: Students were taught carpentry, masonry, blacksmith, mechanics,
wheel writing, basket weaving, harness making. Enrollment started at nine and it ended up to be 600 students. What makes that so significant? Because during that era, if you were black and lived, especially in South Car, in South Carolina, black people could only go to seventh grade. Um, so this school was a beacon of hope in educating the black people in the lowcountry at that time.
SAL: The education provided at the Penn School, along with the security found in land ownership, also allowed St. Helena to defend itself against the racist violence Confederates used to overthrow Reconstruction and install Jim Crow.
MG: There was never ever a shared cropper system established on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina. The KKK would planning to have a rally, but the people on this island set up a blockade and they told them to come if you want to. There was only one way in and one way out. At that time, we didn't have a bridge. Bridge was built in 1927 and when it was open, all those people were coming over here to buy our goods and services. We had indeed become self-sufficient, self-reliant people living on this island saved by isolation.
Although unable to fully insulate itself from the forces of Jim Crow, the St. Helena community's isolation enabled its inhabitants to hold onto their land and economic dependence for longer than other Sea Islanders.
SAL: Today, the Penn School, now known as the Penn Center, is still open. Its campus sprawls over several acres, populated with mature oak trees with dangling Spanish moss. It’s been established in harmony with the land. Nineteen of the school’s original buildings remain. There’s a museum, a produce garden, and programs that continue to serve St. Helena’s residents.
MG: This is a hub of our community. Today, we still educate. We have an all day early learning program. We have an after school program.
SAL: Penn Center's legacy of education and empowerment has been unbroken since the 1860s. Almost a hundred years after its founding, it was home to some of the most important civil rights work of the 20th century.
MG: This is also a place where Dr. King drafted that famous “I Have a Dream” speech. This is where the March on Washington was strategized and planned. This is where the training for the boycotts and sits were done. There was only two places that blacks and whites could work together during that era. Penn Center was one. So we are the secret haven of the Civil rights movement that changed the world. We are proud to be a part of that. Without the action that happened here, the world will not be like it is today.
SAL: So many of the places I visited in South Carolina where black, land owning communities still exist seem to have leveraged their isolation. The places where Gullah Geechee culture flourishes are hard to access, but the isolation has become paradoxical in recent decades. There is still no bridge to Dafuskie Island, which is now a predominantly white retreat for the wealthy.
The island is home to surviving Gullah buildings which attract tourists, but threaten to further dispossess black landowners. The island’s formerly thriving oyster economy has been eradicated by pollution.
[“Wade in the Water” audio]
The consequences of Reconstruction’s overthrow by confederates and abandonment by federal officials reverberates today. Take Hampton County, South Carolina, named for a slave owning Confederate general, the county was established to sway the electorate of South Carolina to ensure white supremacy in the state and end Reconstruction.
Hampton, South Carolina might sound familiar. It’s been the home of the Murdaugh family since the early 19th century. The family that established themselves as a legal dynasty in the lowcountry for generations. Only recently has their power been checked, as Alex Murdaugh faced charges for killing his wife and son, and over 100 criminal charges for a bizarre array of misdeeds.
The country has been enthralled by this story of one corrupt family. Though the specifics of this family’s unchecked power are sensational, it’s not an isolated inheritance of the lowcountry of the South in general.
The white supremacists who thwarted efforts to reconstruct American freedom and democracy after the Civil War have enjoyed generations of wealth and prosperity. While the descendants of the enslaved people here have been disenfranchised and dispossessed for generations.
The Port Royal Experiment and the promise of Reconstruction in general proved that black Americans were capable of thriving. It was so successful that it provoked the long and sustained response of Jim Crow.
Central to all these stories of the Lowcountry is the land itself. Today, Lowcountry communities face threats not only from the whitewashing of their histories, but the erasure of their futures. The salt marshes are uniquely vulnerable to climate change. Rising sea levels, higher temperatures, and an increase in severe storms have already eroded the fishing and agriculture traditions of Gullah communities in the sea islands. Black residents like the Wright family understand that land ownership is the cornerstone to the visions of freedom, autonomy, equality, and independence. It’s the linchpin to free black futures. But the future of these communities is uncertain. What happens to them will tell us something about whether the South and the nation will ever stop repeating its past.
[“Wade in the Water” audio]
This episode was produced by me, Christian Leus, and Christian Brown, with Dr. Kidada Williams. Thank you to Lola Campbell and Dr. Marie Gibbs. Post-production and score thanks to Curtis Fye and Trey Pollard of Spacebomb.
This episode featured voice acting by Dennis Caldwell and music by Frankie James. Olivia Stith, Samantha Higgs, Dominique Jones, and was arranged by Frankie James. This episode is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the African-American History Commission.
As we close out another year of Points South, I wanna thank the people who made this season possible. Adam Forrester, Sidney Nichols, and Patrick McDermott; Jerilyn and Leah Beth Lewis; and the exceptionally kind and gracious David Weinstein of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit OxfordAmerican.org/PointsSouth to find more episodes, plus films, photographs, and more from the world of Points South.