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Hilton Head Island— Haunted by Its Own History

Historical traces of racism and exclusion remain on the island. It’s just that new residents can’t—or won’t—read them.

Knowledge of the history of Hilton Head threatens what people go there for, such as pleasure. Much of the island’s history isn’t pleasant.

According to Gullah Days, when Union soldiers landed on the island, they looted the slaves’ private livestock. Some Black men were violently seized and forced to enlist. In overcrowded and pestilent Union barracks, Black women “were held as the legitimate prey of lust” until Mitchelville put distance between Black families and the soldiers. At the center of the history of America’s first self-governing community of former slaves, then, is sexual violence against Black women.

Knowing the history of Hilton Head fractures much of its happy commercial facade. Few, as Ted Ownby notes, are eager to learn these things while they’re on vacation.3

Knowledge threatens pleasure, as well as the privacy that many retirees worked hard to acquire. It’s possible to acknowledge a lifetime of work, while also pointing to the configuration that makes gated privacy possible: like a cheap labor force that can never comfortably retire.

Initially, while developers boasted of bringing jobs to the region, Black islanders transitioned from independent farming to service work without a change in their economic status and with a significant decrease in their quality of life. As plantations continued to swallow Black land, a larger labor force was needed. Historian Michael N. Danielson describes this development in Profits and Politics in Paradise (1995). According to Danielson, in 1972, although construction was the island’s largest industry at the time, its workers commuted an average of 150 miles every day. Today’s majority-Hispanic workers are bussed in on private lines from a comparable distance. In a right-to-work state with little sympathy for unions, workers will continue to undercut one another, Eric Esquivel, editor of the bilingual Lowcountry magazine La Isla, told me in a phone conversation back in August 2020. And despite Tom Barnwell’s decades of advocacy, Hilton Head’s affordable housing remains nonexistent.

The more you know about Hilton Head, the more its history seems like a matter of the present and future than a matter of the past. A proposed highway expansion that would send the Gullah Stoney community (already divided by an existing road) below an overpass; the tax dollars that rebuild naturally volatile beaches to protect million-dollar homes; the recent profile of “Leading Men of the Lowcountry” in the Hilton Head Monthly—it all begins to feel a bit uncanny. History starts to seem less like the stuff of a referendum and more like the shape of our spines. In the perfectly American words of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”