Almost Gone But Not Forgotten
The little structure, located deep in the pine forest of Lincoln County, that you see here looks like an abandoned relic of the past that will not be with us much longer. But it has signicant historical importance that is worthy of some discussion. This little one room building was once a church and a school in the early 20th century. We have tried to find some information about it but the only thing we found were the following three lines in a Lincoln County History book:…”Smith Chapel School, known as “Sweet Easy,” was once an active school for the black community”. The sign over the door shows a “going-to-church” scene on the left and a “classroom” scene on the the right. It has fallen into disuse and disrepair today”.
There are several things about this church/school that make it significant for us. To have one of these simple, one room buildings serve as a community church and school was not unusual at the turn of the century. The sad fact is that schools like this were often the only access African American children had to any form of education. Sometimes the county paid the salary of the single teacher but that was the extent of it. We don’t know if that was the case here or not. To put the education system into context, you have to look at the location carefully. Smith’s Chapel is located on a dirt road close to the Savannah River in the deep piney woods. It is extremely remote.
The sign on the church says 1911 and that is pretty consistent with the oldest graves in the cemetery nearby. This location would have been prime cotton and plantation country in the early 19th century and would have been cultivated very early, due to its location on the river and proximity to Augusta. The slaves brought in to support that system were freed in 1865 at the end of the war, but they had very few options available. Most of them stayed close to the only home they knew and started farming to make a living. Slaves had been forbidden to read and write for the most part, and in this strange new world they banded together in small community churches and tried to carve out a better life. They very much valued education for their children but, until the Civil Rights Act of 1965, they did not have equal access to it.
In the early 1900’s and even much later, black children were forbidden to ride the county school buses that served the rural whites. This little building was once the center of a small community that emerged out of that environment and we feel a sense of duty to document what little history we can. The churches and the one room schools were the center of life for these rural African American communities that you run across in the deep backcountry. Its nickname, “Sweet Easy,” captures the hope, ambition, and dream of a better life that “dirt” farmers, timbermen, and mechanics nursed in the backwoods. Some of the graves in the grave yard are certainly former slaves and many more are first generation. A common family name that runs through the cemetery is Murray. There were several slaveholders in the area with the sur name Murray and one of these, Thomas J. Murray, owned more than 150.
The quality of the headstones in the cemetery does not seem to match up with the poor tar-paper-covered structure we see above. We wish we knew more about the people who lived and died here. The headstones indicate a level of wealth that is not consistent with the little church. We think a possible explanation for this is the gravestone of Webster Murray (photo below). It indicates that Webster was a member of the Mosaic Templars of America, an African American Fraternal organization that provided burial insurance policies, among other things. These burial societies were not uncommon in the African American community and may account for the quality of the headstones in the cemetery. Perhaps over time, some more history will emerge and we will add to it as we go. Meanwhile, we will document what we can and make sure that even though the chapel is almost gone, it is not forgotten. This is part of our history and we need to respect it as we look at that history through the eyes of our rural churches.