We know very little about the history of this African American church located among the tall Georgia pines in a remote section of Brooks County. There are many similar churches in this part of southwest Georgia, now dominated by quail plantations and large prosperous farms. However, Pine Hill Christian is a splendid example of Georgia history that is important for us to understand. The abandoned little church on this sandy road represents the emergence of African American religion in the post-Civil War period. This was the moment when the country, and particularly, the war ravaged south, began to cope with a strange new world that had been forever changed from what had gone before. As was often the case, the rural church remained the center of this world, and would offer comfort and spiritual sustenance to both races… but in very different ways. How did this poor but proud church pictured above come to exist, here among the remote sandy backroads and Georgia long leaf pines? It is quite a story and one that is very typical for rural black churches such as this in southwest Georgia.
This part of Georgia was ceded by the Lower Creeks in 1818 amid much strife and conflict as the state of Georgia began to emerge out of a vast wilderness. The first white settlers began moving into this area around 1818 as three new counties were formed out of the Indian lands (Early, Appling and Irwin). In time, these three counties were split into smaller ones as the population increased. Brooks County was officially created in 1858, having been carved out of Lowndes and Thomas Counties, which had in turn been formed out of Irwin County in 1825.
Large tracts of land now began to be assembled by successful planters who were aggressively taking advantage of the global economic boom created by the combination of the British industrial revolution and the quality and cost advantage of American cotton. King Cotton began to rapidly emerge as America’s most important export, after the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney on a Savannah plantation in 1793. This combination of British manufacturing expertise and the availability of American cotton created a huge global demand for cotton goods… and Georgia was right in the middle of it. The backbone of the American cotton industry and the plantation system that produced it was, of course, slavery. The emergence of King Cotton was pushing us into the abyss of the Civil War.
Many of the southern slaves attended the churches of their white masters and often outnumbered the white congregants. There were two dominant, white pre-Civil War churches located just up the road from Pine Hill in the little village of Grooverville. Both of those churches have been previously featured on HRCGA. Liberty Baptist was the dominant Baptist church, and Grooverville Methodist was the most prominent Methodist church in this area. Most certainly the congregation that created Pine Hill had its roots in one or both of these white churches. It is worth noting that Liberty Baptist has a prominent slave gallery and Grooverville Methodist does not. They both had many slave attendees but some churches had common, segregated services and others had separate services. We think the main points to remember are first, that the slaves were exposed to the white man’s religion in this pre-Civil War period and second, they chose to embrace it after the war……but in very different ways.
At the end of the war, both whites and blacks in the southern states had to carve out a life in an America that had been torn asunder. It took many years to sort out what emancipation meant. African Americans had to deal with the fact that they had their freedom, but virtually nothing else. And the whites now had to carry on in a land ravaged by war and the demographic disaster of the death of so many young men between 18 and 35. For both, the church was now the primary source of solace and spiritual comfort but interpreted in different ways. African Americans slowly began to migrate from the white churches to form their own sanctuaries, often with the assistance of the white congregations. This is the environment that created so many of these poor, yet noble, rural churches such as Pine Hill. We believe that rural churches provide us a unique perspective on Georgia’s settlement and development. The evolution of African American religion from pre to post Civil War is a significant element of that development.
We think it is important to keep in mind that so much of our present American culture and heritage is rooted in this turbulent period of our history and has made us who we are. For instance, we often wonder how much of our music, indeed the world’s music, stems from the black southern gospel roots that emerged in that fifty year period from 1870 to 1920. Much of this music and cultural influence came from little rural churches like this one in the south Georgia piney woods. Come inside and visit Pine Hill, the little church in the pines that represents such a big part of our American history and heritage.
We don't know the exact date when this congregation was founded, when this meeting house was constructed or when it was abandoned. We think it was around the turn of the century. What we do know is that its interior architectural design with its suspended truss, tray-like ceiling and the chancel, pulpit and apse area nestled beneath a framed arch is typical of rural churches, built in the last quarter of the 19th century in Georgia for black or white congregations. From the horizontal wall boards and vertical sheathing of the ceiling to the plain, large, clear-glass, pained windows and the gleaming white paint, this view is authentic.
This close up gives us a chance to see and note the original elements of the sanctuary still in place as well as some later modifications. The original, wide pine floor boards remain but are laid horizontally, left to right rather than the traditional vertical, front to back pattern. Note that the chancel floor is laid vertically. The apse walls are horizontal while the ceiling boards are vertical, the traditional alignment. It is possible that the apse was remodeled long ago, but the overall presentation of this area would be much like it was when originally constructed. The colorful painting on the apse back wall is the only decorative element in sight. The painting is important and will be featured in a subsequent photo.
The presence of a 20th century piano is no surprise. Congregational and choir singing was a critical part of any black congregation's worship services. The fact that this instrument is still safely placed on the chancel is evidence of how isolated and sparsely populated this part of Brooks County has become. In the 19th century, this area was home to many and churches like Pine Hill were there to serve their spiritual and social needs.
This view from the pulpit gives us a feel of the intimacy and modest size of this church. Pine Hill, like almost all of the rural churches of the era, was the "church home" for a small number of nearby families. It served the needs of its community and was revered and loved because of its successful accomplishment of that "family" mission. The fact that its congregation took good care of the building for so many years is evidence of the congregational pride that existed at Pine Hill. Rural areas such as this began to lose population in the Depression.......reduced by a steady move into urban areas due to lack of jobs and the collapse of subsistence farming. We feel it appropriate to find, document, photograph and share this story for posterity. This will insure that even though structures like Pine Hill will disappear after years of neglect, their story will remain.
We think this painting is a poignant reminder of the fact that African Americans embraced the Christianity they had been exposed to in the white churches. This charming work of art breathes life and color into the abandoned sanctuary. It serves as a final, tangible message of the love and reverence for this church by a member of the congregation. It has been there for almost half a century. See the next photo for the identity of the painter.
This little painting was a labor of love by congregant Leroy Peterson, 45 years ago. Its place of prominence in the little church as the dominant decorative feature behind the podium is just so appropriate, and we are glad it has remained there for almost half a century. Thank you for your service Brother Peterson.
Here we have a view of Pine Hill that reflects what a substantial and complex architectural structure it is. It is not just another rectangular single, center gabled box. Imagine the swelling pride of congregation members every time they looked at this church home constructed by freedmen or first generation descendants. We see classical design elements that mimic a Greek Temple. The four stately columns hold aloft a gabled porch upon which rests a pyramidal, formed sheet metal steeple with a pointed spire reaching up to the sky. Stately wooden pilasters are placed at each corner. We see this as a provocative photograph, evoking many thoughts. The location is quite moving.....nothing but sandy dirt roads and stately Georgia pines. Documenting this church brings us pleasure. Hopefully, it brings the same to you.
Abandoned and Endangered
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OMG I just stumbled onto your website. It is awesome! You need to submit an article to “only in your state” . com so more people will know about this.
Thanks Kelli. Glad you found us. We will take a look at the site. Spread the word.