Thomas C. Barnwell, Jr. was born on Hilton Head Island in 1935 and traces his family back to slavery in Beaufort County. Born to Thomas S. Barnwell, Sr. and Hannah White Barnwell, he grew up with an adopted brother and four foster children raised by his parents. Barnwell’s mother was the only professionally trained nurse and midwife on Hilton Head Island. As a child, Barnwell drove a horse and wagon transporting her to visit patients.
Barnwell graduated from St. Helena High School in 1954. He went on to serve in the United States Air Force and was a longshoreman. In his early career, he held leadership roles with the Beaufort-Jasper Economic Opportunity Commission, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, the Beaufort-Jasper Comprehensive Health Services, and the National Consumer Cooperative Bank.
Barnwell’s impact on the Beaufort-Jasper county community is far-reaching. During his time working as field director at the Penn Center, Barnwell had the opportunity to drive Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the airport and discuss civil rights issues. He organized and secured federal funding for the Beaufort-Jasper Comprehensive Health Services, a neighborhood health center serving 25,000 residents of this two-county area. To help preserve the coastal community where his family lived for generations, Barnwell worked with the shrimp fisherman and environmental activists to keep a chemical plant out of Beaufort County.
Since 1980, Barnwell has been self-employed in housing development and rental properties. His family has been purchasing land on Hilton Head Island since shortly after the Civil War. He has developed a family LLC to save family heirs property and put it into a long-term lease arrangement that provides ongoing income to his family of three children, six grandchildren, and five great grandchildren.
Most recently, he co-authored, “Gullah Days: Hilton Head Islanders Before the Bridge 1861 –1956” with Emory S. Campbell and Carolyn Grant. Among his lifetime of awards and recognitions, Barnwell received the Gullah Trailblazer Award as Pioneer in Economic Development of the Island Lowcountry in 2018 and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Foundation for Leadership Education in 2019.