In 1855, the slaves who belonged to Baptist plantation owners on St. Helena Island built an elegant brick and mortar two-story church to serve as the island's center of worship. Here's a picture of it taken around 1865.
Inside, a roomy sanctuary provided seating for the island's wealthy white population. Their slaves were allowed to occupy the second-story balcony, where they could attend the services without actually rubbing elbows with their owners. Outside were burial grounds for those planter families, including plots occupied by the family members of Daniel Pope, who owned the massive Oaks Plantation just across the river from Beaufort. The three tall obelisks in this recent photo are Pope memorials:
When Union forces captured Port Royal Sound and the surrounding islands, the white planters fled, leaving their slaves to inherit this church. Gideonite teachers and missionaries who occupied the abandoned Oaks Plantation joined them for services in the Brick Church, which would become the center of their social lives.
In 1862 Laura Towne and Ellen Murray began teaching a few slave children in the living room of the Oaks. But when the number of eager pupils swelled from 9 children to over 80 blacks of all ages, they moved the classes to the Brick Church. Laura describes the scene in the sanctuary, where some 200 freed men, women and children took part in lessons, a group in each corner of the room, all shouting their ABC's to make themselves heard over the other classes.
Today the church looks much as it did 150 years ago. It still has an active congregation with services held every Sunday. The building has been refurbished but not fundamentally altered. Outside, along the sidewalks, bricks carved with the names of the descendants of the first slaves to worship here reveal the continuity that marks this community.
The church stands just across Land's End Road (now renamed Martin Luther King, Jr., Drive) from The Penn Center, where a museum and conference center commemorate the work that Laura and Ellen did here. Over the years, the mission of the Penn Center expanded from teaching illiterate slaves to providing vocational training for their descendants. Now, no longer an active school, it concentrates on preserving and expanding our knowledge of the Gullah culture that developed among the African-American population on these islands.