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The Story of Primus Mitchell

The stories of the formerly enslaved Africans and African Americans in the US are complex, filled with anguish, despair, long-suffering, perseverance, and hope.  One such story that profoundly impacted present-day Cumberland Island is that of Primus Mitchell, a formerly enslaved man of Gullah Geechee heritage who helped shape the religious community of the formerly enslaved on the island and their descendants.

Primus Mitchell was estimated to have been born in 1825 on Rayfield Plantation to Bettie and Stepney Mitchell, both enslaved laborers owned by Nathaniel Greene.  Greene, the son of the famous deceased Revolutionary War General Nathaneal Greene, later sold Mitchell, his land, and 52 other enslaved people to Robert Stafford for $11,000 in 1834. It is here that Mitchell first appears in official documents as “Prime” (age 9) as part of the sales deed of the plantation. Since the enslaved were not permitted to read nor write, and his white enslavers were the only ones allowed to have official records regarding his birth, Mitchell went to his grave, never knowing his exact age or the year he was born.

As the property of Robert Stafford, Mitchell grew up to become a field hand on Stafford’s cotton plantation, where he toiled under the task labor system. (The task labor system of chattel slavery involved the enslaved being assigned daily “tasks” to complete.  Once the enslaved completed their assignments, the enslaved laborers were allowed to cultivate their own gardens in the “slave quarters” and occasionally permitted to sell their crops or other services to earn wages.) Later in his life, Mitchell would describe Stafford as a fair “Master,” having only beaten one enslaved person he knew of, even though this beating left the man hearing impaired.   

Primus was in his mid-thirties in March 1862 when Union forces arrived on Cumberland Island, freeing enslaved laborers.  By that fall, Primus had left the island and enrolled in the Navy using the name Primus Stafford, the last name of his enslaver (a common practice for the formerly enslaved after emancipation).  It is unclear how long Primus served in the Navy. Still, according to his Naval pension records, he reportedly served on several ships, including the Perry, Florida, Vermont, and Alabama.  After his discharge from the Navy, he returned to his former surname, Mitchell, and married a woman named Amanda.  Mitchell and his wife lived in Fernandina, FL, for several years before returning to Cumberland Island. They had eight children together and remained married until Amanda’s death. 

Mitchell and his family moved back to Cumberland Island around 1874. They lived in the Brick Hill community, a small all-African American settlement established after the war on the island’s northern end. A very religious man, Mitchell reputedly became involved as an unlicensed preacher and exhorter (praise leader) within the local Baptist community. As a respected spiritual leader in the community, Primus Mitchell successfully persuaded three other families to purchase land in the High Point area of the island (the only site where African Americans were allowed to buy land). These four families would go on to found and build the Col’d (Colored) Baptist Church of Cumberland Island on this land, with Mitchell as one of its founding trustees. The church became central to Cumberland’s Black community as a meeting place where cultural and religious traditions would influence future generations. Sadly, a fire destroyed the original log church in 1937. However, the community rebuilt the building in 1938, replacing it with a framed structure that remains standing today. First African Baptist Church, the church that the Mitchells and three other families founded, would later serve as the site of JFK Jr.’s wedding to Carolyn Bessette in 1996. The church continues to be one of the most visited sites on Cumberland Island today.

Mitchell and his wife Amanda remained on Cumberland Island for the rest of their lives. After Amanda’s death, Mitchell worked for William C. Carnegie (the son of Thomas Carnegie, brother to Andrew, who bought the vast lands once owned by Robert Stafford), looking after the hounds that Carnegie used for hunting.  Mitchell died in 1915 and lies buried at High Point Cemetery on the island.

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The Story of Primus Mitchell

The stories of the formerly enslaved Africans and African Americans in the US are complex, filled with anguish, despair, long-suffering, perseverance, and hope.

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Bell, K. B. (2010). Rice, Resistance, and Forced Transatlantic Communities: (Re)Envisioning the African Diaspora in Low Country Georgia, 1750-1800. Journal of African American History, 95(2), 157-182. doi:10.5323/jafriamerhist.95.2.0157

Bullard, M. (2007). Ned Simmons, American Slave: The Role of Imagination in Narrative History. African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter10(2).

Bullard, M. (2010). African Diaspora Archaeology. African Archaeology Newsletter13(3).

Bullard, M. R. (2003). Cumberland Island: A History. University of Georgia Press.

Hedrick, A. (n.d.). Primus Mitchell of Cumberland Island, Camden County, Georgia. Primus Mitchell of Cumberland Island, Camden County, Georgia

National Parks Service (NPS). (2023). First African Baptist Church (U.S. National Park Service). U.S. Department of the Interior.,following%20the%20American%20Civil%20War.

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