Life experience trumps popular platitudes regarding race


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.


11 thoughts on “Life experience trumps popular platitudes regarding race

  1. Right now, I think the ladies’ caution was understandable, and you handled the situation exactly right. The gunman in Charleston at through almost an hour of Bible study class before pulling out his weapon, and there have been six fires at African American churches in the South since then. This is a difficult time. Emotions and fears are very raw right now, and there’s no cure for that but time and good will. Or as the President said on Friday, Grace.

    • Thanks, Andy. I understood their concern, but I guess no one likes to have others misjudge them. I would also hate for this punk to get what he ultimately wanted, which was to divide the races. I don’t think that will happen, but his actions have certainly brought out some bad feelings.

    • It’s interesting that whenever I have an opportunity to meet people who are obviously from another part of the world (because of their accent, dress, etc.) I will often ask them where they’re from. I do so because I find it interesting to learn something, even something small, about somewhere else, and if my kids are with me, it gives them a chance to meet and hear from someone from somewhere else. I know enough about geography and history that I can usually strike up a conversation of some sort, no matter where the person is from, but I wonder in retrospect if I my questions were too forward? At times I feel as though we’ve reached a point where it seems there’s no middle ground as far as talking with people who are different. Is it best just to keep your head down and keep walking? I hope not.

      • I like to learn from people too…and I think most people like to be asked. There’s a clear distinction between natural curiosity and interest and someone trying to put someone down.

  2. While I am sure that the recent events in Charleston may have been the reason the women chose to be so cautious, I’ve been doing research throughout the Lowcountry for many years. Often I am tracking someone in an African American cemetery or actually tracking a church and it is not unusual for someone to approach me to ask who I am and what I am doing there. I’m white, female, 50s and grey haired with notebook and pen in hand. I think, at least in the Lowcountry, many small African American churches have felt the weight of real estate developers who would love to get hold of whatever land they can–by whatever means possible. I have also found that when they know who I am and what I am working on, these inquisitive folks become very helpful in fleshing out my story and sending me on new leads!

    • Yes, I can understand the anxiety some small black churches would feel in the Lowcountry with the way land has been gobbled up by developers in recent years. I have always found people of all races to be helpful when I’m trying to track down historical sites, but this was one of the first times I’d been to a black church when church members were on the site. And, to their credit, they did send me to a site I was looking for about a mile away.

      Thanks for your note, and for stopping by.

  3. That is so odd that they asked for id.
    Enjoyed the post and wanted to comment on one question asked:

    “Doesn’t the human body provide protection by sending up internal red flags when something seems amiss?” – I absolutely believe it does. I once read a book called, The Gift of Fear and I think we have a God-given gift we too often ignore.

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