Renowned rural church approaches 260th anniversary

The current iteration of Salem Black River Presbyterian Church, a looming Greek Revival structure which shows surprising little wear and tear, dates to 1846.

The church, Basilican in plan, with walls and ceilings of plaster and heart pine floors, has a slave gallery and boxed pews. It has played an important role in the development of the surrounding area, including the town of Mayesville, which today has approximately 700 residents, essentially unchanged over the past 125 years.

The congregation dates to 1759, with congregants first worshiping in a log cabin, then moving to a framed structure shortly before the American Revolution. A third church was built in 1804 and used until the current building was erected.

Its full-time first pastor, from 1773 until 1792, was Thomas Reese, a Princeton-educated churchman whose doctoral thesis was titled “The influence of Religion on Civic Society,” likely an unusual topic for an 18th century Colonial American theologian.

The makeup of the church’s antebellum congregation reflected the rural region’s growing dependence on cotton and the need for slaves to sow, tend and reap that crop.
In 1804 the congregation totaled 89: 45 whites and 44 blacks. In 1840, that number was 160, with 42 whites and 118 blacks. By the beginning of the War Between the States, the church’s rolls showed 67 white members and 389 blacks.

Many of the black congregants, who no doubt attended the church because they were required to, left Salem Church shortly after the war’s end to join Goodwill Presbyterian Church, just down the road from Salem Church.

Goodwill

Goodwill Presbyterian Church, just down the road from Salem Church, was begun in 1867 by black members of Salem Church.

Goodwill Presbyterian went on to become the mother church to many African-American churches in South Carolina, according to the blog Everything Happens at the Crossroads, which recounts a history of the Mayesville area.

Today, Salem Church has just 30 members of its roles and averages active attendance of 14 for its services, according to a 2015 article in the Darlington News and Press.

Among noted members of Salem Church have been Robert Witherspoon, a US Congressman who served during James Madison’s first term; Matthew Peterson Mayes, who served in the SC legislature and signed the SC Ordinance of Secession; and James M. Dabbs Sr., who, despite being born in 1896 and growing up on 10,000-acre plantation, was a Civil Rights leader who also served as a professor, farmer, author, church leader and Penn School Community Services trustee.

Dabbs deserve special attention. He took up the civil rights cause in the mid-1940s when he began writing about segregation and racial injustice in Southern culture. Dabbs served as president of the Southern Regional Council from 1957 until 1963, during which time he endorsed a petition requesting executive clemency from President John F. Kennedy for imprisoned civil rights activist Carl Braden. His wife Edith Mitchell Dabbs was also active in the Civil Rights movement.

Salem Church, despite the declining health of the surrounding area and the size of its congregation, continues to hold services twice a month, and both the church and graveyard are kept in immaculate condition.

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Remembering what Memorial Day is about

ravenel photo

For the past two Memorial Days, this blog has focused on a single individual: Theodore Dubose Ravenel Jr., a South Carolinian who was killed in the final 24 hours of World War I.

Ravenel came from Sumter County and is buried in a historic churchyard in a small, withering community. Given that he died nearly 95 years ago, it unlikely that anyone who knew and remembers Ravenel is alive today.

That makes his story just one of many million that is all but forgotten today, but which represents the real, genuine sacrifice that Memorial Day is meant to honor.

Ravenel hailed from a noted family and was known throughout the state, according to a newspaper article written about him by The State following his death. In addition, he was acknowledged as Sumter County’s first volunteer following President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war in 1917.

Commissioned as a lieutenant, Ravenel was stationed at what was then Camp Jackson near Columbia, SC, before being sent overseas as a member of the 316th Machine Gun Battalion of the American Expeditionary Force.

News accounts of Ravenel’s death describe him as a “brave soldier” and noted that he “was highly esteemed by a wide circle of friends.” He was promoted to captain during his service on the Western Front.

An indication of his bravery may be the fact that he was killed on Nov. 10, 1918, the final full day of the war. Rumors were rampant by this point that an armistice was imminent and many soldiers were understandably content to essentially hang back and keep out of harm’s way.

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Memorial Day and short-term memories

A trip to Memorial Park in Columbia, SC, Monday found a smattering of people inspecting around the various monuments to those who gave their lives while in military service.

Were it not for an extended family from Pascagoula, Miss., passing through, there would have been barely a dozen individuals on hand on this Memorial Day, most of them Vietnam-era veterans.

It was a paltry showing given that the park is dedicated to those who lost their lives in Vietnam, Korea, World War II, World War I and, specifically, the Holocaust.

But, then again, Americans have always tended to be a forward-looking group. This isn’t always a bad thing, but there’s a certain sadness that comes with the recognition that our society as a whole has limited interest in showing its appreciation to so many of its young men and women who died in service to their country.

Politicians will roll out the platitudes at the proper times, families who have lost loved ones will grieve in their own private way and a small percentage will genuinely make an effort to recall those who gave their lives for the US.

Except for the latter two groups, most Americans see Memorial Day as little more than just another holiday, a chance to cook out, swim at the local neighborhood association pool and knock back a few beers.

It may not be the America that those that gave their lives would have wanted to die for. Continue reading

Celebrating a historic SC church’s rebirth

One of South Carolina’s most historic churches held a homecoming service earlier this month to celebrate an extensive renovation project that enabled it to formally reopen its doors after nearly a decade.

The Church of the Holy Cross, located in the Sumter County community of Stateburg, traces its history back to 1852, when it was built by slaves.

The Gothic Revival cruciform-design church features walls of yellow pise de terre – or rammed earth – and a high-pitched roof of red tile, and contains a rare organ and original carved walnut pews, according to a description of the Episcopalian house of worship on the National Register of Historic Places.

Using an ancient building technique, slaves “pummeled Georgia red clay into wooden forms to create monolithic walls, 18-inches thick,” according to The State newspaper.

By packing earth between wooden molds, tamping it down, and leaving it to dry, the earth became as hard as baked brick.

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