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.
Click on the gallery photos below for more commentary.
In this photograph, we get a close up of the signs, the front door exterior wall with its failing tarpaper sheathing falling away, its battered tin roof and crumbling barge board barely hanging on. This miniscule structure has seen much better years. It is doomed to collapse soon without some serious attention, attention that is not likely to materialize. The signs provide proof of Smith Chapel’s multiple duties within the now gone community. It served as the villager’s school, social center, house of worship and a place of safety and peace in the very hard, Jim Crow times in this part of Georgia at the turn of the 20th century.
Clearly, this structure has been abandoned for some time. The are some hints of the past seen in the residue. The decrepit pulpit still stands, barely, on the chancel. Its original pews are gone and makeshift seating is in place, using old school bus seats that were brought in at some point. These seats would have well served both congregants and school children. The wood stove flue remains in place. But, the interior has been gutted and all the ceiling and wall sheathing removed. It is touching to see the skeleton of the walls and ceiling. It was well built and quite sturdy. Constructed of heart pine boards and still protected from the rain by a tattered tin roof, this old building still, somehow stands. It could be resuscitated but it will not be. Its people are gone. We appreciate having been given the chance to discover and document this important relic of the past and saluting its service.
The complete devastation of the interior is further documented in this photo. The odd configuration of seats, the seemingly random low wall separating one area from another are surely the result of the multiple uses this room served. We also have another look into the rafters and can see/appreciate its very sturdy design and construction. This building was built to last… and it has.
This view across the back of the church toward the stove flu simply reenforces the evidence that this was a “multi-use” facility serving many community needs. We only wish we had more historic insights and information regarding Smith Chapel. It could provide us with an even more illuminating look back into the life and times of these villagers in the early 20th Century. Hopefully these facts will surface as we continue to seek documentation.
As we leave this old Chapel behind, we get a final look at its present condition and a clue as to its grim fate. We see here that the tin roof that has kept out the wind and rain is now failing. As the wind slowly peels back the panels of tin that we see are already beginning to be lifted up, the rain will invade the interior and set into motion the inevitable rotting and destruction of the wood frame. But, this historic old structure will be documented in the HRCGA files and available for study in the decades to come.
Florida was Florida Murray before her marriage to Webb Lane on 24 Dec. 1900 in Lincoln County, GA. About all we know about her is from census records which show she evidently had three children and worked as a farm laborer. Her marker with a Bible on top and other markings indicate a source of money from somewhere. Her husband, Webb Lane, lived until 1966 and is buried next to his second wife, Lonie, at Smith’s Chapel.
Della and Simion appear in several Lincoln County census records. In 1900, Della’s date of birth is given as April 1860, and Simion’s is given as April, 1858. This means both of them were probably born slaves. In 1900, neither of them can read or write but three of their nine children are attending school and all of the children over 6 years of age can read and write. Four times between 1878 and 1882, Sim Lane pays a poll tax and is listed as a freedman. He perhaps voted. By 1940, he is living with his son, Webb Lane. He died in 1941. Like Florida Webb, Della Lane also has what appears to be a book or Bible at the top of her marker.
The marker for the grave of Webster Murray is representative of markers provided by the Mosaic Templars of America, an African American Fraternal organization founded in Arkansas by 2 former slaves. The monument department of this organization “provided every deceased member with a custom-made ‘Vermont marble marker’ engraved with the MTA symbol”. The name C. E. Bush at the bottom of the marker is Chester E. Bush, son of one of the founders. The provisions of this fraternal organization may help explain how Webster Murray and other poor African Americans in this remote area of Georgia could have such fine cemetery markers.
Roy Williams died while in service in WWI. He was 22 years old at the time of his death on Dec. 13, 1917. He died of Myocarditis Acute. His mother was Ellen Williams, whose maiden name was Murray.
Thomas McMurray’s name may have actually been Thomas “Mack” Murray. Many of the people buried at Smith Chapel are part of the Murray family. The census records give his name as Thomas M. Murray and Thomas “Mack” Murray.
Mary L. Martin was the wife of Rance Martin. Her maiden name was Mary Lou Murray. Mary and other African Americans in the area named Murray were likely descendants of slaves owned by large slave owners named Murray who were in their area prior to the Civil War.
These little cemeteries, churches and schools located deep in the backwoods of Georgia are sometimes all that is left of some of these African American communities. They are an important part of our history and, they may be almost gone, but they are not forgotten.
Almost Gone But Not Forgotten
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In those days the Holy Bible served as a textbook in some cases and before 1844 in most schools across America! We’d be better served and a good bit wiser if we returned to the practice
I get the pictures and information on the churches. Have one of your books and have purchased several within the last 2 years giving them for gifts and donating one to my churches library. Please sign me up for the news letter.
I traveled a bit in Lincoln County in my work about seven years ago. It seemed remote and scarsley populated. Is there not some type of county historical society that may help save the little structure. Were you able to find out who owns the property now. Does the Ga Historical Society offer any guidance to anyone trying to preserve these historic properties. From the little I know about it, I really feel this is s significant piece of African American history. Having owned a “supporting structure” in Hog Hammock on Sapelo Island, I can tell you it’s quite difficult to get the local folks interested in saving these structures. I have learned that after the slaves were freed and teachers were provided in these one room school houses, the children would attend during the day, and the teachers would hold classes for the adults at night so they could learn to read and write. There were even some very old adult school books in our house. It seems there should be someone somewhere who could help save this little structure. The Ga Historic Society has a designation called “Places In Peril” that is used to designate places/structures that need to be saved.