By Allyson Jones
What happens when two local history buffs join forces to share their “common passion for education”? They create the Bluffton Lecture and Dinner Series.
Joanie Heyward, a member of one of Bluffton’s foremost families who works closely with the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society, and Carolyn Coppola, an historic preservationist who founded Celebrate Bluffton, happened to meet on the front porch one day.
“We decided it was time to provide education about our history to Blufftonians,” said Joanie. Operating independently of either organization, Joanie and Carolyn presented the first lecture on the “Architectural History of Bluffton” last September, followed by the “History of the AME Church and the Campbell Chapel Congregation” in November. The series continues in 2018 when Victoria Smalls presents the “History of Praise Houses” at Campbell Chapel AME, with dinner from Captain Woody’s on January 22.
There are three remaining praise houses in Bluffton—one on Simmonsville Road (Left), another behind the privately owned Cordray House on the corner of Calhoun Street and May River Road and the third in the space now occupied by Jacob Preston Pottery on Church Street.
“Since we have three in Bluffton, we realized they have an important place in our history,” noted Joanie. “Why were they built, who built them and what were they used for?”
As program manager of the Charleston International African-American Museum (IAAM), Smalls is uniquely qualified to answer these questions. The St. Helena Island native spent the past five years serving as the Director of History, Art and Culture at the Penn Center, one of the most significant African American historical and cultural institutions in existence today. Her father was a graduate of the Penn School, and Smalls can trace her family history on St. Helena back before the Civil War. A cultural preservationist who has dedicated her life to promoting the Gullah-Geechee culture of the sea islands to a global audience, Smalls is also a professional artist and is currently coordinating the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor’s Watch Night & Emancipation Day Celebrations.
“Praise houses were the center of African American community life and worship during the plantation era and well into the 20th century,” explains the Celebrate Bluffton website. “The praise house tradition began in the dark days of slavery when African Americans were not permitted to travel or even gather together. Praise houses gave them a place to worship—and meet—on the plantation. Within the walls of tiny praise houses, enslaved African Americans would hold religious services, share news and settle disputes.”
A place where Christianity and non-liturgical African religion converged, these simple, sparse clapboard structures often held dozens of people extolling Jesus through ring shouts and call-and-response sermons—without the benefit of instruments or hymnals.
With origins in indigenous Central and West Africa dance traditions, the ring shout had congregants shuffling slowly, at first, in a counterclockwise circle while simultaneously clapping, tapping their feet, singing or praying as a “stick man” beat a simple, gradually accelerating, rhythm on the floor, transforming the simple dance into a jubilant, transcendent religious ritual.
The praise house on Simmonsville Road near the intersection of the Bluffton Parkway was originally located a mile away in Belfair Plantation and is over 100 years old.
In the early 1950s, the Reverend Jimmy Buncomb, Deacon Oscar Frazier and Deacon “Daddy Toy” Fields led a volunteer group to move the praise house to its present location, where it was used by area residents from various congregations who couldn’t make it into town for services at the “church.” on Wednesday and Friday evenings and Sunday mornings.
The praise house tradition eventually ended, once people could drive to bigger churches located further from their homes.
In Old Town, a free black mason named Isaac H. Martin was listed as living in the block bounded by May River Road, Calhoun Street, Boundary Street and Church Street in the 1860 Census, according to “A Guide to Historic Bluffton” published by the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society. The house was burned by Federal troops in 1863 and, by 1913, the property had been divided into several lots, including the site of the Cordray House. Now private property, the last remaining Praise House in the Historic District was built to house a new congregation while funds were being obtained to build a church.
Orignially built for a Baptist congregation, the Old Bluffton Tabernacle on Church Street was once located in what is now Jacob Preston’s Pottery until around 1935. This structure has been described as a
n “Artifact of Poverty” with many recycled parts from other buildings, including the tin roof and various-sized windows.
As Celebrate Bluffton points out, “Praise Houses were the core of African American life in the early years of Bluffton’s history. The joyful spirit and sense of community that once resonated within these walls continues to be an inspirational touchstone for African Americans today.”
The “History of Praise Houses” with Victoria Smalls (Left) takes place on January 22 at Campbell Chapel AME Church at 6 p.m. The lecture is free; payment is required for dinner. To RSVP, contact Carolyn Coppola at (914) 475-1168 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Joan Heyward at (843) 707-7610 or email@example.com.