History on Hilton Head’s Heel
Posted on May 23, 2012
In John Sayles’s film Sunshine State (2002), one of the key story lines explores the conflict between the longstanding but threatened African American community of Lincoln Beach and a development company intent on building a new resort community called Exley Plantation. The film is patterned loosely on Amelia Island in northern Florida, where American Beach, a historically black beach town, has clung to its property despite some three decades of encroaching resort development, notably by Amelia Island Plantation.
The story could have been set on any number of the so-called Sea Islands that stretch some 200 miles northward from Amelia into Georgia and South Carolina. On some islands, small communities of Gullah-speaking residents are descendants of enslaved people who worked rice, cotton, and indigo plantations for centuries. Hog Hammock on Georgia’s Sapelo Island, which enjoys state protection from resort development, harbored a remnant community that has struggled more with attrition than tourism encroachment as its youth have tended to leave to pursue opportunities on the mainland. But Sapelo cuts against the grain.
A closer model for Amelia Island was Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, where more intensive resort development over the past half century has, as American Tourism contributor James Tuten demonstrates, all but displaced its preexisting black population. In both places Charles Fraser envisioned naturalistic development concepts, which proved so popular that ultimately no part of either island could escape the impact.
While Amelia’s American Beach has held on as a legacy of the early to mid 20th century when Jim Crow laws and customs dictated separate racial spaces at the beach (in this case for black middle-class vacationers), the much older Gullah communities on the Sea Islands have not generally fared well. Hilton Head tourism engulfed native residents and either forced or enticed most of them out of their homes. However, a small, loosely organized remnant remains. It derives from an experiment in self-reliance made possible during the 1860s when Union forces seized the Sea Islands from Confederate planters. On the “heel” of foot-shaped Hilton Head Island, black freedmen founded the town of Mitchelville in 1863 and tended it for five years until President Andrew Johnson returned planters’ lands to them, thus dispersing the townspeople.
As detailed in a recent Associated Press report, the South Carolina government is now debating sponsoring a Williamsburg-like restoration of Mitchelville that a determined group of island residents and backers have pursued in conjunction with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. More than a Civil War commemoration, it is part of a larger movement (one that has unfolded slowly since the Civil Rights Act’s passage in 1964) to return African Americans to an American story long crafted in ways that marginalized blacks. At Colonial Williamsburg, which is tightly controlled by a foundation originally set up by the Rockefellers, incorporating black history has been a forty-year enterprise with bumps along the way. More recently, activists have managed to reinsert black history in projects ranging from historic house museums to black heritage trails to dedicated tour companies.
Most directly, if successful, the Mitchelville Preservation Project will join the longstanding efforts (with some successes) to save Gullah communities along the Atlantic through heritage tourism. Fifty-five years after developer-designer Charles Fraser planted the influential Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head’s “toe,” the island’s heel may soon have its day in the sun.