The haunting relic you see in this photo needs to be put into historical perspective, as it represents a watershed event in our country’s history. We believe this is the original sanctuary of Ways Grove Baptist, one of the very oldest African American Churches in Georgia. The original congregants were slaves who attended the white church, Ways Baptist, located nearby. Both churches were located in what was then known as Stellaville. In February of 1865, months before the fall of Richmond and the surrender of Gen. Lee at Appomattox, several of the slaves petitioned the elders of the white church with the request of holding their own meetings. The request was granted and services were first held in the white church and later on grounds near the church with the understanding that the grounds were to be used for “religious purposes only”.
Then in May of 1867, sixteen of the newly freed slaves applied for letters granting them permission to join another Baptist church. According to the history, ” on Friday, June 16, 1867, this church was organized with four white friends, Rev. Kilpatrick, W.W. Rogers, W.M. Davis and James Oliphant. The black members were Brothers Milo Jordan, Alfred Young, Charlie Redman, Lit Walker, Harry Benefield, George Beasley, Annie Beasley and Mariah Hannah. Rev. Alfred Young was called to pastor this little number”. We are told that Rev. Young served the church faithfully for twenty years and grew its rolls to 175 members. An article from the Louisville News and Farmer in March of 1884 stated “Rev. Alfred Young, a colored Baptist preacher of this county, died last Thursday. He is said to be the only licensed colored minister that has died in the county since the war.”
We believe the church pictured above was the original sanctuary and also served, over time, as a school and a community center. In 1888 a new church was built on the location where the current active church now stands. We are told that the 1888 church is still there, but it was encased in brick in 1952. The history also states that the church did not have electric lights until 1950. A photo of the current church is in one of the gallery photos below. Also note that there are more cemetery photos than usual due to the nature of the cemetery itself. There are 340 documented interments in the cemetery, making it one of the largest African American cemeteries in rural Georgia. However, we are told that there are also over 200 unmarked graves, a common occurrence in older rural cemeteries where the congregants were simply too poor to afford headstones. While there are a number of documented interments of people born into slavery, there are many more in the unmarked graves as these newly emancipated slaves, who could neither read nor write, struggled to make a living in very harsh conditions.
For instance, Deacon Sebron (Seaborn) Brinson was born in 1811 and died in 1915 at the age of 104. He would have spent the first 50 plus years of his live as a slave, and likely the property of John Brinson, the father of Stella Brinson that the Stellaville community is named for. The 1880 census shows that Deacon Brinson lists the birthplace of his father as Africa. The connection of these two churches, one white and one black, to our Georgia history is remarkable. The white church, Ways Baptist, goes back to 1817. Both of these congregations are still there, still thriving and serving their communities, both having seen sweeping changes and turmoil in our nation’s history. We believe that the story of these two historic rural churches truly tell us where we came from and how we got here. We are grateful to both congregations for their loving stewardship of these historic sanctuaries.
Be sure to click and scroll the gallery photos below for more information on Ways Grove Baptist.
This is a view of the church exterior from the same vantage point as the first shot but slightly further away. Here we can see the signs of the gradual deterioration of this relic. However, to our mind, Ways Grove is in remarkably good structural shape given its lack of an active congregation and many recent years of little or no preventive maintenance. The old bell tower remains intact as well as the main building. This is so because of the fact that it still has an intact and sound tin roof. Most of these older churches are suffering from the water damage that is caused by unsound roofs, broken siding and open windows. Ways Grove can be saved. Given its charming, single gable with corner belltower of unique design attached, it is architecturally worthy of preserving. And yes, there is a bell in the tower.
In this view, we see that the Ways Grove sanctuary is a remarkably well-preserved example of a black church of the post-civil war era. These relics are rare and historic. All of the floors, walls, ceilings, window frames, doors, pews, etc are of pine and most likely put in place by congregants. The simple fact these items are still intact and useable is encouraging regarding the church’s future. And, the fact that the wood stove used to heat the church is still in place and intact is quite rare. We also think that this structure was used as a school house and a community center in days gone by.
This is a closeup of a north wall window from the aisle. Though the sanctuary has been invaded by vines creeping through the windows, there is little or no evidence of rainwater damage. Since the north walls bears the brunt of bad weather during Georgia winters, it is rare that those windows remain watertight. This is a good sign.
This view is from the south side pews and provides us another look at the two, 12x12, sashed windows in that area. They look sound and we see no evidence of water damage. We also get a feel of the cozy atmosphere in this old church. Note that the pews all are fairly close to the only source of heat. We can see that the wood stove is in the center of the sanctuary. The stove pipe itself would be red hot and provide radiant heat throughout the entire sanctuary.
We have told you earlier how rare it is to find working stoves still in place in these old rural churches. In this shot, we still see the evidence of recent use of this stove at Ways Grove. We were surprised to find that the usual, rectangular brick floor upon which the stove would normally be placed to lower the chances of the floor catching on fire is not present here. Guess they have been very lucky over the past decades that the Ways Grove church building has not gone up in flames.
We close with a view from the north side pews over the stove and focusing on the south wall. Note that, as elsewhere in the Ways Grove Sanctuary, no signs of serious decay are seen here either. We conclude that given its present state of repair, Ways Grove is a wonderful candidate for restoration. Because of Its historic nature and continuing connection with its original black founding families since the 1860’s, it would be a shame for this church to be lost.
Deacon Sebron/Seaborn Brinson was born in 1811 and died May 17, 1915. The 1880 District 81, Jefferson County census shows Seaborn Brinson, age 50, father born in Africa, Centy, age 52. The 1910 census shows Seaborn Brinson, age 88, Laborer, living with nephew Joe Brinson who is also buried at Ways Grove. A story in the News and Farmer, April 18, 1901 describes a petition by Seaborn Brinson and others to the Superior Court to incorporate under the name “Ways Grove Moral Aid Society” and to be a benevolent society to aid and assist members to bury their dead, to borrow and lend money, and to propagate the principles of charity and benevolence among mankind in general.
Lawse Beasley was born July 4, 1896 and died April 4, 1955. He served as a Private, Company A, 314 SVC Battalion QMC, World War I. He enlisted June 19, 1918 and was honorably discharged August 2, 1919. In the 1920 Jefferson census he was in the same household as Thomas Beasley mentioned above. His name in the 1920 census was spelled Loss Beasley and he was 24 years old, working as a laborer. Some records appear to spell his name Lawson.
Annie B. Hannah Hornsby was born December 20, 1865 and died March 26, 1903. In the 1900 Richmond County, Georgia census she was age 43, married 11 years, with 2 children. Her husband, Thomas J. Hornsby, was age 43, occupation preacher. The Augusta Herald, October 15, 1922 reported on the dedication of a new building on the grounds of Walker Institute to be called the T. J. Hornsby Memorial Building. Their son, Walter Spurgeon Hornsby, Sr. (1862-1956) was president and one of the co-founders of Pilgrim Health and Life Insurance Company.
John Gibbons was born January 20, 1890 the son of Leroy Gibbons (1842-1924) and Jennie Farmer Gibbons 1846-1931). He served in World War I. He was inducted August 3, 1918 and served until his death October 13, 1918 of Lobar Pneumonia. John Gibbons parents are also buried at Ways Grove. Leroy Gibbons parents are in the 1870 Jefferson County, District 78, Georgia census listed as James Gibbons, age 80, and Plesant Gibbons, age 70. The 1900 Jefferson County census shows Jennie’s parents Plato Farmer, age 74 and Emaline Farmer, age 68.
Obe Avery was born in 1851 and died September 17, 1927. The 1870 Jefferson County, Georgia, District 77 shows Obediah Avery, age 23, Farm Laborer, Julia Avery, age 23 and children Green, Edward, and Jack.
Amanda Knight was born October 15, 1855. The 1880 Jefferson County, Georgia census, District 77 shows Amanda Knight, age 24, born in Virginia, with Alex Knight, age 22, Mary Knight, age 83 and 2 children ages 2 and 10 months. Both the 1900 and 1910 census state she has given birth to 11 children and 4 are still living. Their son James Knight died in 1933 in Augusta, Georgia. It shows his parents as Alex Knight and mother maiden name Amanda Brown. Amanda Brown, age 16, born in Georgia is in the 1870 Jefferson County, Georgia census with Whyatt/Wyatt Brown, age 40, born in Virginia and Louisa Brown, age 32 and four more children. Next door is Charles Brown, age 60, born in Virginia, Amey Brown, age 55, born in Georgia and one child.
Dennis Farmer died February, 1907. Date of birth unknown.
Annie Clark was born 1850 and died December 9, 1920. Her death certificate shows she was the wife of Peter Clark. The 1880 census, Jefferson County shows Peter Clark, age 25 and Ann Clark, age 26. Also in the household is Kiziah Wright,age 50, Mother-in-law of Peter (Mother of Ann). In the 1900 Stellaville census Peter is age 50 and Annie is age 50, she has had 10 children, all still living. Peter Clark’s death certificate shows he was born in 1846 and died October 19, 1923. He was the son of Jack Gunn and his wife Adaline. Jack Gunn was listed in census records as a Blacksmith, born about 1815.
Samuel Lee Palmer was born December 10, 1923. His headstone application shows he enlisted in the Navy August 6, 1942. He was discharged December 15, 1945. The 1930 Jefferson County, Georgia census shows him as the 6 years old child of Hood and Emma Palmer. Three younger children are also listed in that census record. In the 1940 census, Augusta, Georgia Samuel Palmer is age 15 with his parents Hood and Emma and 3 younger children. Samuel Lee Palmer died August 28, 1948. Hood Palmer was the son of Dennis Palmer who is also buried at Ways Grove and died in February 1907. Dennis Palmer is in the Jefferson County 1880 census at age 25 with wife Hennie and two children.
Here is the entrance to the church and a good perspective on the bell tower, that still contains the original bell. It also shows a structure that has been neglected and is slowly being reclaimed by nature. Still she is in remarkable condition, given her age.
This is the present church which is very active today. It is hard to believe the church is built around the second church, built in 1888.
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Who is the Reverend Kilpatrick mentioned in this article? I have several Reverend Kilpatricks in my family and I was interested to know which one. Thank you. [email protected].