EXIT of the DAY: EXIT 8 I-95s: Road 13, To Switzerland, Beaufort, South Carolina, and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
In November 1861 the Union Navy attacked nearby Port Royal Sound and for the rest of The Civil War, Union Troops occupied the Sea Islands.
Meanwhile local Whites fled their plantations, abandoning about 10,000 slaves. With no provisions for refugees, The Union could only ask that the slaves stay and continue to farm.
During the first year of occupation African American field hands successfully harvested approximately 90,000 pounds of cotton. The workers were paid one dollar for every 400 pounds harvested. Thus, these people became the first freed slaves to earn wages for their labor.
This soon evolved to become the so-called Port Royal Experiment. While the farmers struggled through the war to make a success of their farms, Union missionaries, teachers, ministers and doctors volunteered to help promote this experiment. Freed people built hospitals and schools. In schools, math and literature were taught for the first time.
The experiment was such a success that in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued new land redistribution policies that allowed nearly 40,000 acres of abandoned Confederate plantations to be divided among 16,000 families of the “African race.” But the land was not free. The freed people had to purchase the land. Families were each offered 40 acres each — which became known as the slogan that success could be found with just “40 acres and a mule”. Almost immediately blacks bought about 2,000 acres of land.
In part due to the success of the Black Farmers in Port Royal, Lincoln became convinced that African Americans could possibly be effective Soldiers. He sought soldiers from the population and was overwhelmed by the response of those who volunteered to join the Union Cause.
It was only the assassination of Lincoln in April 1865, however, that ended momentum. The new president, despite being a resentful poor white Southerner, Andrew Johnson was determined to restore all lands back to the previous white elite “Planter Class”.
Nonetheless not all white owners returned to the Sea Islands. So thousands of black families continued to farm their lands until well into the 20th century and even until today.
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