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Saving Praise Houses Before Their African Lineage Is Forgotten

The Rev. Kay Colleton will never forget the time she first laid eyes on Moving Star Hall, a tiny white clapboard building with a leaning chimney, a crooked roof and a storied history. The hall is a rare surviving example of a praise house — humble one-room structures used as places of worship by enslaved people on coastal plantations throughout the Carolinas and Georgia. They have been providing spiritual sustenance for generations of African Americans ever since.

“There were no keys, so we just came right in,” Pastor Kay recalled of that day in 1989. “It was in a state of barrenness. I’ll be honest: I said to the Lord, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’”

Pastor Kay and her church, Manna Life Center, on Johns Island, S.C., vowed to breathe new life into the hall. And on a hot and humid day last summer, rife with tiny no-see-ums — and the ubiquitous hand-held straw fans in these parts providing little relief — about a dozen longtime congregants of Moving Star Hall came together for prayer, song and reflection. All of them were Gullah Geechee, whose enslaved ancestors had been abducted from west and central Africa; and their knowledge of rice cultivation and other crops was used to generate incomparable wealth for this region’s brutal white planters.

Alive and hopping, Moving Star Hall is an outlier among the handfuls of praise houses still standing in varying states of repair, most tucked away on rural roads through dark tunnels of oaks laden with Spanish moss.

The compact dimensions of these houses — sometimes known as prays houses — were stipulated by planters intent on staving off insurrection by limiting the number of enslaved people who could congregate within.

Despite such controlled measures, these sacred spaces became safe havens where African cultural and spiritual traditions flourished in secret. Many historians regard them as a cradle of the Black church.

“Prayer houses are the spiritual foundation of who we are in America as enslaved people and as free people,” said Victoria A. Smalls, the executive director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a 12,000 square-mile, four-state area established by Congress in 2006 to represent the region’s unique character. “They have helped us stay attached to our African lineage as a form of resistance, resilience and strength.”

The challenges of preserving the vernacular architecture of existing praise houses — their numbers still unknown — preoccupies Smalls, Pastor Kay and others. After emancipation, freed men and women continued to build praise houses on or near the old plantations. Many were moved. Often, they were absorbed by larger churches and, perhaps because of their size and associations with slavery, torn down or left to languish. The region’s humid salty air takes its toll. Warmer temperatures due to climate change, mightier hurricanes, sprawl and development are endangering still others.

Like all praise houses, Moving Star — which dates to around 1910-17; no one is certain — is at once a spiritual home and a community center. Before telephones, notices of births, deaths and other news were disseminated by the hearty beats of a drum and, in some praise houses, a cowbell. They were also informal courthouses, dispensing “just law” rather than the “unjust law” of white institutions. “They provided discipline when people got out of hand,” said Emory Shaw Campbell, 82, considered the dean of Gullah Geechee culture, who helped translate the New Testament into Gullah.

Cheryl Glover, 59, who said she grew up nearby in an abusive home, remembers feeling safe in Moving Star Hall as a child. “It offered hope beyond what you can see,” she said.

The hall’s legacy is deep: In the late 1940s, the shooting of a Black man by a white neighbor inspired the local leader and activist Esau Jenkins and others to start the Progressive Club on Johns Island, which played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. In that era, with Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School, the Club forged “citizenship schools” to teach the literacy skills then required for Blacks to register to vote.

Moving Star has been “a house of worship and a house of knowledge,” said Rev. DeMett E. Jenkins, a granddaughter of Esau and the director of education and faith-based programs for the new International African American Museum in Charleston, about a half-hour’s drive away.

This little praise-house-that-could also gave birth to the renowned Moving Star Hall Singers, who, from the 1940s to 1980s, performed at the Newport Folk Festival and were avidly recorded by the pioneering ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.

“They’d sing and sing and sing, sometimes until 3 in the morning,” recalled Rogina Deas, whose own rich voice makes the hall’s worn parquet floors vibrate, with Pastor Kay on the tambourine. Back then, the instruments were just sticks, a washboard and an old hand-cranked washing machine with a wringer that was somehow rigged to set the tempo. “I don’t know how they did it,” she said. “We gave credit to the Almighty.”

For Charmaine Minniefield, a visual artist who divides her time between Atlanta and Gambia, praise houses are a way to honor ancestors like her great-grandmother Ora Lee Fuqua, who was born on a sharecropping plantation in Kentucky and taught her the ring shout, “a full body rhythm prayer.” The practice survived the Middle Passage from Africa to America, but often had to be performed clandestinely. The shout thrives today as a buoyant finale to worship services in Gullah Geechee and Black faith communities.

Congregants circle counterclockwise, fervent in their call-and-response shouts and praises while stamping their feet on the floor to create what Minniefield calls “a communal drum.” The shout was “conceived in Africa and born on American plantations,” said Griffin Lotson, who traces his Gullah Geechee family back seven generations and manages the famed Gullah Geechee Ring Shouters in Darien, Ga.

Two years ago, Minniefield started the Praise House Project, erecting temporary structures commemorating Black identity, resistance and strength — from enslavement to the present, which she positions in places where Black history and culture have been erased. She calls it “place-keeping.”

Her first praise house opened on Juneteenth 2021 at the African American Burial Grounds in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, where the individual graves of more than 800 enslaved people were disinterred and moved to an unmarked mass grave (the location was discovered in 2016). Her multimedia collage of ring shouts from Georgia to Gambia animated the interior walls and Lotson’s Ring Shouters performed.

Minniefield’s latest “remembrance as resistance” praise house is open on Emory University’s campus in Atlanta, Ga., through Dec. 15. Inside, moving images and songs delve into the university’s complicated past (enslaved people constructed the original Oxford, Ga., campus, and the university’s namesake, John Emory, was a slave holder). She has been creating oral histories of descendants of the enslaved and exploring her own history through the Slave Voyages database.

“We upheld our gathering and worship traditions in spite of enslavement,” Minniefield said. “In that teeny tiny place, you are intimate with yourself and your community. They are the salve, the medicine we need.”

The salve was in full force at a Sunday morning service at Sams Memorial Church of God in Christ, in Darien, Ga., which started life as a praise house. Lotson’s Gullah Geechee Ring Shouters were there, performing “Picking Up Leaves” in traditional dress. Women churchgoers in their Sunday best belted out gospel hymns and danced in gravity-defying heels.

Lotson is a descendant of Butler Island Plantation across the river. In 1859, his ancestors were auctioned off in Savannah in one of the largest sales of human beings in U.S. history (436 men, women and children, including 30 babies), a disaster known as the Weeping Time. He considers the plantation sacred ground and sometimes comes to gather the herbal remedies he grew up with — curly dock and life everlasting, brewed in a tea to cure toothaches, or the Spanish moss tucked into a shoe for high blood pressure. It was “also good for your significant other long before Viagra,” he added.

“We wanted to get modernized, be part of the mainstream,” he said, explaining why some praise houses have been torn down on plantations. “Who doesn’t?”

He led the way to two praise houses in sorry shape. One is used as a storage shed on the former Ardoch Plantation, on land sold to freed slaves. The other inspired Minniefield’s art project and was rescued from demolition by Jim Bacote, a civil rights activist and preservationist who died in 2018. He and his wife, Pat Bacote, established the Geechee Kunda Cultural Arts Center and Museum in Riceboro, Ga., on former plantation land. “It was a real effort from the heart,” Lotson said. “But time caught up with him.”

A lack of historical awareness has contributed to their inadequate protection, said Amir Jamal Touré, a historian and the Center’s resident scholar. “People don’t know the story so they don’t grasp the magnitude of it,” he said.

Houses that survive are tended by people with deeply held memories, who cherish the structures as volunteer community curators.

The Rev. Dr. Renty Kitty Jr. and his sister, Brenda Kitty Moses, who are Gullah Geechee, are determined to restore a praise house in Bluffton, S.C., rescued in the 1950s from the former Belfair Plantation, where their father grew up, before the property was sold to developers. It was carted by mule and wagon along a dirt road that is now a four-lane highway.

They hope to gather there for Watch Night, or Freedom’s Eve, marking the time before midnight on New Year’s Eve when Africans waited for the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect. “Some of the little fellas had moonshine in their back pocket,” Pastor Kitty, 64, said, relishing his father’s stories. “And some women had it in their brassieres.”

As a child, Brenda Moses noticed that the pastor’s robe smelled like mothballs, but if she laughed during worship, “Mother would give a big old pinch in your arm,” Moses, 67, recalled. “So we respected that ground wholeheartedly.”

Today, praise houses “need lives and to serve a role,” said Jon Marcoux, the director of Clemson University’s graduate program in historic preservation, which involved Moving Star Hall last summer. “People have the misconception that buildings are like snow globes, never changing.” Moving Star holds an annual gospel fest and recently brought in a group of pro bono attorneys to help community members draw up wills.

On Johns Island, subdivisions and an influx of wealthy homeowners are altering the island’s historic character. Two hours south, St. Helena Island in Beaufort County, still a stronghold of Gullah Geechee culture, enacted a special zoning law in the late 1990s to protect its pristine marshlands and cultural landscape from gated communities and other Hilton Head-style resort developments.

But pressures remain, including an ongoing legal battle between Beaufort County and a golf course developer. In Hogg Hummock, a Georgia Geechee community on unspoiled Sapelo Island, a proposed rezoning that would allow bigger and bulkier houses has angered residents concerned about being priced out of their historic homeland.

Angela Dore got two offers recently to sell land on St. Helena Island that has been in her family since 1886. During Reconstruction, formerly enslaved men and women, including her great-great-great-grandmother, became property owners.

“Land ownership is something Gullah Geechee people take pride in,” said Dore, the research coordinator for culture and community at the Penn Center National Historic Landmark District, which is among the country’s first schools for former slaves. “If you lose your land, you lose your culture.”

The dusty dirt roads on St. Helena still bear plantation names. There were once nearly 50 praise houses on the island; now there are three. “Some of us have forgotten how to behave and treat one another,” said Campbell, who was the Penn Center’s executive director for over 20 years. “When you reflect on what the praise house did, it could teach us some lessons.”

At the Mary Jenkins Community Praise House here (ca. 1900), the Rev. James Peter Smalls, a deacon, pays the monthly power bill and other expenses to “clean it up and be presentable,” he said. Hardly altered, it retains its original benches and cowbell.

Smalls has started a nonprofit for the building and the cemetery down the road. The area is dense with ancient trees, and he advised visitors to watch out for rattlesnakes and copperheads amid his family headstones.

Another self-appointed custodian was Mary Rivers Legree, an effervescent 82, who spent her career in Detroit and New York and returned home to St. Helena after what she called “a melancholia” came over her. She noticed that the Coffin Point praise house, rebuilt around 1944 after a devastating hurricane, was standing vacant. As a girl, she recalled, “my great-great-great granddad would take me by the hand when the bell sounded, and it was time for a praise meeting.” But some young people would sneak around the praise house on their way home, “to avoid being corralled in,” she added.

In this steward role, she said, her duties included sweeping away cobwebs, replacing air fresheners, relating the building’s history to visitors and setting out a small donation box to keep the grass cut, the trees trimmed and the interiors shipshape.

“This place represented a relief and a release for enslaved African Americans,” she said. “The young people seem removed from the true sufferings of what our people endured.”

Rosa Middleton, a minister, has started holding services once again at Coffin Point, inviting parishioners from local churches. “The memories are still there,” Middleton said. “The peace is there. You draw strength from there — the strength they had that ‘We can make it no matter what.’ ”

During a visit in late August, Legree and Middleton broke into the gospel song “Oh, When I Get There,” about the promises of heaven, with Legree swaying to the rhythm. “Sometimes you get a worry that time is nigh,” she said, referring to recent health issues. “You don’t know when you will be called to go home.”

And three weeks later, the call came. Legree died in September, and is now at rest at the Coffin Point cemetery, less than a mile from the praise house. Middleton is committed to keeping it going.

“When God meant something to stay in place, it stays in place,” Smalls said of the persistence of these sacred structures. “The history of the prayer house is knowing where you came from.”

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