HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — Along the marshes of the South Carolina coast, Hilton Head Island rises up from the sea.
It's known as a vacation destination, full of coastal homes and beaches. Some hope, though, it might soon be known for something else.
"We only have about 36 acres," said Ahmad Ward, executive director of Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park.
Those acres make up the site of the former town of Mitchelville. It was the first town in America to be run by people who were formerly enslaved.
"This is happening in the middle of the Civil War, in the state that started the Civil War, during enslavement. This should not be happening in any way, shape or form, but yeah, it did,” said Ward.
The Mitchelville Freedom Park is comprised of a collection of historical artifacts and replicas that tell the story of the lost town.
"We're sitting on the site of the first town of self-governing, formerly enslaved people in the United States," Ward said.
It all started when the Union Army battled for control of the island in 1861 and Confederates and plantation owners fled. Left behind were the former slaves of more than 20 plantations.
More than 3,000 former slaves settled there, creating an elected governing structure and naming the town Mitchelville, in honor of Union Gen. Ormsby Mitchel, who died of yellow fever less than two months after the town's founding.
"There's almost 500 homes here, about four churches, forts, four stores. This is the site of the first mandatory school system in the state of South Carolina," Ward said. "These folks went from being property to owning property— and that sea change is such a large one for this area."
The town lasted for more than 30 years, until 1893.
"The Great Sea Islands Hurricane came through and basically destroyed everything," he said.
Now, Ward and the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park are starting a national fundraising campaign to create a history center.
"We will have an interpretive center, about 18,000 square feet, that will talk about everything that I've discussed and bring it to the 21st-century context," Ward said.
Visitors to the park welcomed the idea.
"I'm just really glad that people are making an effort to preserve this history, which is pretty important for the whole country," said Barbara Cochran, who was walking down one of the park’s tree-lined paths. "They set up this settlement and now there's not much real trace of it left. And so, this whole effort to hang on to that history, to reveal it once again, I think is pretty amazing."
Ward hopes others think so, too.
"We want people to leave at the end with the notion of what does it mean to be a good citizen,” he said, “because citizenship is important to what we're doing here."
It’s an importance that was also shared by the people who once lived there.