People of the Lowcountry

My Mentor Turns 76

I have had the absolute privilege of working on the Mitchelville Preservation Project Board of Directors with Tom Barnwell.   Today, on Hilton Head Island, right where he was born,  Mr. Barnwell turned 76……and believe me – he is 76 years young.  He and his wife Susan are absolutely lovely people and I am so pleased that I am able to spend time with true community-based Islanders.

Its fun having Mr. Barnwell as a mentor to me at 33, we solve all the problems of the world and talk about everything – politics, culture, race, community spirit, history and of course family.

I wrote the following intro for Mr. Barnwell’s induction as an “honorary” graduate of the Leadership Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce Program.   Since this blog is about all things I love about the Lowcountry…..I thought it would be nice to honor  Mr. Barnwell with the first post – because he truly is the Lowcountry.

With Love From The Lowcountry,


Thomas Curtis Barnwell, Jr.

Island Developer and Philanthropist

Thomas Curtis Barnwell, Jr. was born on Hilton Head Island, in 1935. His parents, Hannah White and Thomas Barnwell Sr. baptized Thomas Jr. in Skull Creek.  Both his mother and father were stewards of the Island, delivering social services, food and other goods to Native Islanders.  His mother’s side of the family was from the Okatie area and his father’s family were decendants of Mitchelville, the first town, for contraband slaves in America.

Mr. Barnwell grew up on Hilton Head Island in the oceans, marsh and land – his family growing fresh vegetables, raising cows and hogs, fishing, catching shrimp and crabs and hunting.

Mr. Barnwell graduated from St. Helena High School in 1954 and enrolled in Clafin College in Orangeburg. After one year at Clafin. Barnwell joined the United States Air Force. He received an honorable discharge and enrolled at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. In 1960, he began working as a longshoreman, in Savannah, Georgia.

Mr. Barnwell traveled extensively to continue his education. He studied sociology at Fisk University in Nashville; community development at the University of West Indies; group dynamics at the University of Ontario; community education at the University of Puerto Rico and studied for his masters at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Mr. Barnwell began his work in community service at Penn Community Services – now known as the Penn Center.   While at the Penn Center, he worked in community organization & federal program planning.  During his tenure, Mr. Barnwell drove Martin Luther King Jr. to the Penn Center for a meeting of civil rights activists.  Mr. Barnwell was later named an honorary pall bearer at Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral.

In the early 1970s, he and other native islanders helped win the fight against a $100 million dollar chemical plant that we now know as BASF in the Victoria Bluff area.  Politicians wanted to build this plant near the bridge to Hilton Head and Islanders felt it would have precluded the area from ever becoming a tourist destination or a desirable place to live.

Also in the 1970’s, with coolers full of shrimp and oysters, he went to Washington seeking federal money when he founded the public-health service now known as Beaufort-Jasper Comprehensive Health. He later served as the executive director of the organization.  The current administrative building is named in his honor.

Mr. Barnwell is a lifelong entrepreneur, and has developed and maintained several successful housing tracts on the island – a steward of affordable housing on land that could easily have been sold to developers long ago. He has been interviewed extensively by many media outlets such as, NPR, 60 Minutes, CBS, The History Makers and The New York Times.

He has twice testified before Congress on Hunger, Malnutrition and Human Needs and on the National Consumer Cooperative Bank Act

His newest passion is the revitalization and reconstruction of the Town of Mitchelville in the area off Beach City Road, known as Fish Haul Park.

Mr. Barnwell is married to Susan, his wife of thirty-plus years. They have three adult children.

On one last note – you may also find Mr. Barnwell doing what he loves most – driving a tractor and raising marsh tackies and goats, and growing peas and potatoes on his land, all in the native island tradition.


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