Honoring History

May 26, 2023

Written by Amy Coyne Bredeson
Photos supplied

More than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Union soldiers led by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to share the news that the Union had won the war and would begin enforcing the end of slavery in the United States.

For that reason, June 19 — abbreviated as Juneteenth — became a day of great celebration in America, especially in the South.

As historians and many Hilton Head Islanders know, the island played an important role in the history of the end of slavery. Founded by Union Army Major General Ormsby Mitchel, the area now known as Mitchelville was the nation’s first self-governed town of formerly enslaved people.

To celebrate this important part of American history, Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park will host three days of Juneteenth events later this month.

“Our tagline is ‘where freedom began’ because this was the first opportunity for Africans in America to enjoy citizenship in the place where they basically built and fostered this community,” Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park executive director Ahmad Ward said. “It just makes sense for the celebration of freedom to happen at Mitchelville … a landmark in the conversation of freedom for African Americans in this country.”

The ninth annual Juneteenth Celebration is June 15-17 at Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, located at 40 Harriet Tubman Way off of Beach City Road on Hilton Head.
The celebration will kick off at 6 p.m. June 15 with the third annual Juneteenth Campout with Joe McGill. The overnight event will include dinner and conversations with McGill, who runs the Slave Dwelling Project. It will conclude at 6 a.m. June 16. Cost is $30 a person. Tents will be available to rent for $25 each.

The Juneteenth celebration will continue with a drum circle at the park from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. June 16. The event is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be available for purchase.

A festival will be held at the park from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on June 17. The festival will include food trucks, a children’s area, and live music by Marlena Smalls and the Hallelujah Singers, Voices of El Shaddai, and Alvin Garrett and Just A Few Cats. Vendors will be selling all kinds of wares, and local nonprofit organizations will also be set up at the event.

Ward said most businesses participating in the festival have some kind of connection to Gullah culture, but not all of them do.

“Everybody can be a part of this,” he said. “We have the most diverse events in the area.”

A fun addition to this year’s festivities is an old-school dance contest. And no, “old school” no longer means the 1950s and 1960s. Organizers are looking for dances from the 1980s and 1990s. The audience will choose the winner, who will receive a $100 prize. Participants can sign up at the event.

“We just keep trying to grow the event and bring in more and more things,” Ward said.

Tickets for the June 17 festival are $20 for adults, $10 for ages 6-17, and free for children under age 6.

Another Juneteenth celebration organized by the Bluffton MLK Observence Committee will take place at 4 p.m. June 17 at Burnt Church Distillery in Bluffton.

While Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park’s Juneteenth celebration will be filled with entertainment and lots of fun, organizers also want to take the opportunity to educate people about the holiday and the significance of it being hosted at Mitchelville.

The festival will include readings of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution.

“We’re looking forward to a good time for everybody,” Ward said. “And we want people to keep learning about this tremendous history in the Lowcountry area.”  

To purchase tickets to the ninth annual Juneteenth Celebration, visit exploremitchelville.org or call Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park at 843-255-7301.