The story of St. Paul CME cannot be told without relating the story of the renowned farmer and plantation owner, David Dickson. David Dickson was one of the wealthiest planters in Hancock County at a time when Hancock County was arguably the wealthiest county in pre – Civil War Georgia. Even though his land was not regarded as particularly suited to raising cotton and other cash crops, David pioneered agricultural techniques that were way ahead of his time. His fame as a planter was known far and wide.
David Dickson was also an outcast among the white planters of the region because of his open romantic relationship with one of his slaves, Julia Francis. Upon his death, the daughter(Amanda) he had with Julia was set to solely inherit all of Dickson’s landholdings – about 17,000 acres appraised at $309,000.00. After legal battles that went all of the way to the Georgia Supreme Court with the other Dickson would-be heirs, Amanda America Dickson won her right to the land and became the wealthiest African-American woman in the country.
To learn more about the life of Amanda Dickson click here.
The St. Paul CME church was organized in 1857 by slaves on the Dickson Plantation. In 1870, property near the brush arbor where services were conducted was deeded over to the church. This property is the site of the present church and cemetery. Lucius Holsey, a well-known Bishop in the CME church, founder of Paine College in Augusta, and former slave of Richard Malcolm Johnston, began his preaching career at this church. There have been many notable church leaders since, and the congregation is still active today having established a new sanctuary close to the one above.
St. Paul is off of the beaten path. There is a wide open field in the middle of the woods at the junction of St. Paul Church Road, Pine Bloom Road, and an unnamed dirt road that leads back to the Dickson Plantation house. The church grounds offer a quiet, peaceful place to reflect upon the lives of slaves and former slaves as they struggled to define themselves within the limits of their reality. The cemetery is unusually large for such a rural cemetery, and many of the markers are home-made. The congregation must have felt strongly about leaving reminders of the past for the future. Maintenance of the cemetery and church grounds is a daunting task considering the size, but things are well kept. We encourage visitors to be mindful of the sacred history of this place and the stories – both good and bad – that it has to tell.
Looking from the north towards the church, the protected portion of the tower gives a glimpse of how this magnificent structure must have looked like new - a literal beacon in the wilderness for its flock on Sunday . The simple and traditional design of the typical rural church is augmented by the single tower off to one side. In the distance and off to the left in the photograph, an older structure that appears to have served as a school house at one time is approaching its end as it melts back into the woods. There is so much history associated with the Dickson Plantation that this church deserves the help it needs to stick around for future generations to enjoy.
The intriguing structure off to the side of the church and near the woods appears to be an old school house building. The entryway on the opposite side of the building has a missing door which reveals what appears to be several rows of desks. This building is in poor condition and may soon be lost to the elements. The ghostly appearance enhances the quiet surroundings and makes one wonder what this space would have felt like during a time of fellowship in bygone days. The piney woods have taken over in recent years, but in antebellum times through the early 1900's, this area would have been cleared and plowed for the growing of cotton or corn - staples of the Dickson Plantation.
It is thought that this church building was erected in the 1870's-80's. This substantial sanctuary with its prominent steeple featured above was a sign of the church's and congregation's relative prosperity in that Reconstruction era. This wealth sprang in large part from St. Paul's role as an integral part of the flourishing Dickson plantation. A closer look at the picture above provides further interesting insights. The steeple/bell tower and roof presents to us a very old wood frame structure which is in good condition. The heart pine wood, resistant to rot, and the thick, rust-resistant tin clad roofs have been well maintained throughout the years. With care, there is no reason this historic monument will not be standing for another 150 years.
This photograph features one of the dedicated, stained glass windows in the sanctuary of the new structure raised next to the old church by the congregation. It is included here to document the type of fit, finish and high-quality maintained by the congregation at their new facility. It is also inserted here to accentuate the fact that this church intends to continue to grow and prosper in the years to come. At the same time, they are dedicated to preserving and sharing their old sanctuary for all to see and enjoy as a tangible monument and physical link to their storied past, their struggles, their successes and their bright future.
This is a thought-provoking shot of the St. Paul cemetery that perfectly reflects its African-American roots. We see a scattering of marble, granite and concrete stone monuments representing completely different dates/eras…a tilted, marble slotted one to left center, a tall, stone tablet in the center, both 19th century, then a 20th century one (hand-made) of concrete at the right foreground. And finally a polished granite, 21st century marker at the extreme right. In between we see lots of modest marble, rock or concrete, many un-inscribed, markers along with countless depressions marking sites where a body was lovingly wrapped in a shroud, buried and then slowly melted away. In the far background still stands the old tabernacle where every one of them worshiped. There was no more important institution in rural, early Georgia communities than churches like these... black or white. Thank goodness they still remain to remind us of where we came from. Selah
As earlier chronicled, when David Dixon died in 1885, he left his entire estate to his mulatto daughter Amanda America Dickson. He also stated in his will that any person contesting Amanda's right to the estate, his or her legacy would be revoked. In spite of this warning, 79 of David Dickson's white relatives came forward to object. As you know, they failed, Amanda got all the money and moved to an Augusta mansion. We have to wonder if the Joseph Dickson, whose tombstone is pictured above, was Amanda's brother or other relative? How was he affected by Amanda's good fortune… if at all? We love uncovering these tales as well as stumbling across new mysteries while we revisit the histories of Historic Rural Churches of Georgia.
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