Hilton Head Island lost an icon this week and I lost a friend.
I can’t really remember when I first met Veronica Miller, but I do know when she and I came to be friends. Veronica and I formed our friendship on the Mitchelville Preservation Project Board of Directors almost 10 years ago. Her expertise was in education and mine in marketing. I don’t know if our connection was immediate or over time but each month over the period of years, she and I would sit at the table with 20 others with the heart-driven mission of Mitchelville.
You see, the descendants of Mitchelville – like my friend Veronica – still reside on Hilton Head Island today. They are the great grandchildren of contraband slaves that found their own freedom in Mitchelville, built their own schools, churches, homes, farms and families – all BEFORE the emancipation proclamation. Think about that. Then, after the Union Army left the Island – these former slaves utilized the land they were enslaved on – now in a freed capacity – and built their life around fishing, farming and families. And churches of course 🙂
This was all before the development of the Island occurred.
It was at that table, and with the influence of Veronica, that my purpose in that room shifted. You see, when I joined the Mitchelville Board, I believed Mitchelville was the most important place and story from Hilton Head Island (which, it is), but really my lens was from a tourism perspective. In conversations with my fellow board members, such as Veronica, I came to realize that tourism is the smallest sliver in the story that has rooted community, people, land and ancestry and who’s fabric of that place is thread throughout our Island.
Veronica and I would have conversations about sanitary sewer, parks, preserving Gullah culture, ancestry, land and heirs property, education and of course, Mitchelville. She helped open my eyes to what needed to be seen and always led with a gentle heart.
While possessing a gentle heart, Veronica was never afraid to speak her mind. And why would she be? Deemed as a leader and matriarch of the Gullah and Native Island community for generations, she took on the roll as a powerhouse. You always knew where you stood with Veronica.
Four years ago, The Heritage Library released a project named “The People On Hilton Head During The Civil War” which was compiled by researchers who dug through deposition papers. I did the PR for the event and we held it at Town Hall. We packed the place, it was awesome. Veronica read the deposition papers of Matt Jones, her great-grandfather. Matt Jones (wife, Teena) was a slave on the Island before the Civil War and then joined US Colored Troops here on Hilton Head Island. He is the only known photograph of a US Colored Troop on Hilton Head Island and is buried in Amelia White Cemetery. Pretty cool that she and her family have this – as not many families do.
This past February, The Heritage Library and Gullah Celebration joined forces for a similar event at the Historic First African Baptist Church (FAB). “The People On Hilton Head During Reconstruction” was a conversation about how reconstruction HERE was different than any other place in the South. Again, Veronica rocked it talking about her great-grandfather and great-grandmother, their marriage by the Rev. Abraham Murchison in 1867 and other tidbits from historic documents. It was truly another key moment in our Island history.
Check out her presentation in the video below.
Yesterday, I felt the need to go back through my email exchanges with her and re-read our correspondence. There were a lot of them – I found one that brightened my heart and one that truly made me want to crawl under the table. The one that brightened was my email to her asking her to attend my birthday party. The one where I want to crawl under the table was from nine years ago. As I re-read it, I felt I came across pompous and arrogant, total gut check. In my mind I thought “how the heck did she read this and not take me to the shed?” But that was Veronica. Forgiving and kind. And always teaching.
I will miss seeing Veronica. She was always there, at the grocery store, at a meeting, driving down the road, in her Burgundy SUV with the community stickers all over the back – always around, always available. Always involved. She would never miss a moment to ask me about my three babies – I can hear her now “ How those three baby boys” and of course “Where’s your girl?” She had witnessed my pregnancies with each of our children and knew how desperately I wanted a girl ;). This year, I have had the opportunity to form a new bond with Veronica’s daughter Faquita, mom of all boys too, and I am truly grateful for our friendship.
This loss is deep for Hilton Head. There were so many that loved her. She will be missed and her legacy will live on.