This past Saturday found me looking for a long-vanished church in what was once the town of Helena, SC.
Helena, subsumed years ago by the county seat of Newberry, is a predominantly African-American area with a couple of interesting and decidedly disparate claims to history: It is the birthplace of civil rights activist Frank J. Toland Sr. and, conversely, was where noted racial demagogue Cole Blease served as mayor in the late 19th century before moving on to the South Carolina state legislature, the governor’s office and finally the US Senate.
There are almost no records of Helena Church available on the Internet, and all I had to go on was information found on a genealogy site titled “Newberry County GenWeb SC Cemetery Project,” which lists numerous county cemeteries, along with addresses and GPS coordinates if that data is available.
For the old Helena Church, the information included GPS coordinates and the words “S/A Browns Chapel.” I don’t know what “S/A” refers to, but I am familiar with a Brown Chapel, an African Methodist Episcopal church in the Helena area of Newberry, sometimes identified as Browns Chapel.
I have been told of cases of some older white churches abandoning their structures once congregations dwindled to a size that they were no longer a viable house of worship, at which point a black church would take over the building.
Wondering if Brown Chapel was the old Helena Church, or built on the site of the latter, I decided to pay it a visit.
I pulled into the crushed-gravel parking lot about 2 p.m. and saw a couple of cars parked near the church. About 30 feet behind and to the right of the church I noticed an old gravestone standing alone and pulled near it. At the same time, another car with two older black women pulled into the lot.
I got out of my car to take a closer look at the grave marker, and the two women, having parked about 75 feet away, inquired from their car if they could help me. I walked over and explained to them that I was looking for the old Helena Church and asked if I was in the right place.
They immediately asked me my name and requested my identification. Somewhat surprised, I complied.
As they wrote down my name and driver’s license number, the pair, both of whom were in their mid- to late-60s, questioned me about why I was looking around. I told them I was interested in a certain individual, a German immigrant who had died around 1912 and who had been buried in the Helena Church cemetery.
Peering at my driver’s license, they noticed that I was from a town about 20 miles south of the church, and asked why I was in Newberry County. I explained, politely, that I had read old newspaper reports that had said the individual I was searching for had been buried in Helena Church and according to information I’d found on the Internet, I thought that the church may have once been at this location.
They explained to me that Brown Chapel only had graves of black parishioners, but suggested I try another site about a mile away.
I thanked them and as one of the pair handed me back my identification, she replied, “Well, we can’t be too cautious.”
The comment was an apparent reference to the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston earlier this month by a 21-year-old white nut job that claimed nine black lives.
I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I thanked them again and returned to my car. Needless to say, I found the experience unsettling.
A quick description of yours truly: Bespectacled white male, 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, 50 years old. I was wearing a t-shirt, nice shorts, dockers shoes and a Santa Clara University baseball cap. I can’t speak for others, but I hardly see myself as a threatening individual.
Were the two women out of line questioning me because I was white? Some would say yes.
Would they have asked for my ID if I were a black male; were they insinuating that given my color I needed to be watched more closely; do they believe there is increased chance of similar white attacks on black churches occurring?
I don’t know. I didn’t feel comfortable asking any of those questions.
There is a segment of society that decries the fact that, according to them, the most segregated hour in America takes place on Sunday morning, during church services. Personally, I’ve always felt that folks should go to whatever church they want, with the understanding that no one should be turned away from a house of worship because of something as arbitrary as skin color or sexual preference.
That said, after Saturday’s experience, I believe my presence during an AME or CME church service would be met with trepidation. But could I blame a congregation for being anxious if one day, less than a month after the events at Emanuel, an unfamiliar white male showed up at a black church service?
Doesn’t the human body provide protection by sending up internal red flags when something seems amiss?
As I thought about the encounter at Brown Chapel, I realized that both of the women I had talked with were likely born in the late 1940s or early 1950s. They grew up in the segregated South and had to deal with all that went along with that world.
I, on the other hand, was born in California, on the day after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. I’ve lived in the South for many years, but no matter how much I read and how many people I talk with, I would never be able to fully understand the experiences these two older black women went through.
I have trouble understanding how they could be suspicious of me; they might have countered by stating that they had trouble understanding how I couldn’t understand why might be suspicious.
If, as it has been said, we are all products of our environment, and every person we meet, every new adventure we experience and every book we read reshapes us, even if ever so slightly, and makes us the unique beings we are, I can only hope that my manner and disposition left those two lades changed, and for the better.