Old Oak Grove Methodist is a haunting image of an old structure almost 100 years old that will not be with us much longer. She was a beauty and, as we document more of the rural African American churches across the state, we find that this basic twin tower design and variations of it are fairly common. According to a History of the South Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church 1866-1984, Oak Grove was organized under a brush arbor in 1876 with five members. According to the history, the sanctuary you see above was completed in 1919 and re-modeled in 1978. The history tells us there were 122 members in 1982. The church is still active in another location and we don’t know exactly when this structure was vacated.
The cemetery, visible on the right, contains graves prior to the 1919 completion date of the above sanctuary, which leads us to believe that there was another structure on or about this location and this church replaced it. Therefore the evolution of the site was probably the original brush arbor, to a log structure to the frame church above. The fact that the cemetery predates this church would support this original location being one of long standing. We also believe that the towers could have been added to an existing church in 1919 since the main part of the structure appears to be older than that and several of the graves in the cemetery predate 1919. Perhaps we can solve this architectural riddle at some point.
It took some time after the Civil War for blacks and whites to get to the present level of separation that was part of the post-war evolution. Prior to the war, the church embraced the black community spiritually, although in a totally segregated fashion. Therefore the slaves worshiped at the same alter as their masters and this was predominantly either Baptist or Methodist. Prior to the war, both denominations had split into northern and southern factions over the issue of slavery and it would be many years before they became “united” again. Meanwhile, the black churches began to form independently of the whites after the war. The fact that Oak Grove was formed in 1876 would make it one of the oldest African American Methodist congregations in the state. In these early days, it may have been as an AME (African Methodist Episcopal) or CME (Colored Methothist Episcopal) faction but it would not have been the United Methodist Church. That came much later.
Part of our mission at HRCGA is documentation of the old structures that will not be with us much longer. The old sanctuary above speaks to us with the quiet dignity of days gone by and the spirit of families trying to carve out their own identity in the aftermath of slavery and the Civil War. Old Oak Grove is almost gone but she will not be forgotten.
Imagine what a surprise it would be to round a curve on a lonely southeast Georgia road and suddenly come upon this forlorn, hulking structure. Why is this church all alone out here? The story of the settlement of rural Georgia can be told through the eyes of such churches as these. This formidable sanctuary was built by former slaves and was the center of their social universe in this agricultural community. Generations of black Georgians lived and died calling structures such as this one their “church home”. Please note the skill and loving care that went into the construction of this building. The twin towers are finished in two completely different types of shingle styles. On the left is an ornate and boisterous display of octagon, diamond, scale, square butt, etc. designs. On the other tower, a more sedate and consistent flat butt style is seen. In a land where there was little money, the congregation saw fit to build an elaborate and expensive sanctuary of which they were quite proud. Hopes for a brighter future were on the rise.
The interior of Oak Grove was never as elaborate and showy as the exterior. But it was commodious and practical. In this view toward the chancel and apse, we see a low-ceilinged, rectangular space with small windows. Prior to the re-modeling in 1978, this room would have had high ceilings, tall windows, solid wood heart pine walls and window/door frames presenting a much different and more stately atmosphere. To keep these churches running when congregations were dwindling in mid-20th century rural Georgia, the elements of the building that cost the most to repair were simply replaced and/or covered up!
Though the congregation had hoped for increasingly better times, the inexorable shrinking population, lack of viable industries and collapse of small farm viability in that part of Georgia took a greater and greater toll each year. Less than 30 years after the remodeling, the exterior and interior of Oak Grove had deteriorated to such an extent that it was abandoned. The old piano now sits mute and alone.
This view from the pulpit area confirms the complete abandonment of Oak Grove. It also bears witness to the accelerating damage being done by the elements because of the leaking roof and interior ceilings, open doors and open windows.
This is a marble, pedestal tombstone with a vaulted roof. Placed in the cemetery before the construction of the present sanctuary, it marks the grave of William Elias, born a slave in 1831. It is notable that his marker is a relatively sophisticated and expensive monument. At his death in 1911, William had obviously come a long way from his slavery days and was well loved and revered by the family he left behind.
Many of the tombstones are not as elaborate as William Elias’. Here we see a simple Gothic tablet in memory of Blossie Jackson who died young at 26. Early mortality was common, particularly among women and children in the 19th and early 20th century. Note the spare but elegant dove inscribed above her name. The dove symbolizes purity and love, the soul winging its way to heaven.
This marble, slot and tab stone has been broken but is still legible. Imagine the life journey of Stepney Scott, whom it memorializes. Born into slavery in 1816 and living 80 tumultuous years. What a story could be told. R.I.P.
Our goal at HRCGA is, at a minimum, to pictorially document as well as provide some historical narrative defining each of the churches we discover. On many occasions we can do more and… sometimes… even see that new life is breathed into old churches! Given the abandonment and impending demise of this old church, we have now at least met the minimum requirements, and … no matter what the final outcome…it will live on within the archives we maintain. Selah.
Almost Gone But Not Forgotten
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