In the community of Newington in Screven County is a church that remains something of a mystery. The history is sketchy and we can only speculate as to the organization date. We do know that Middle Ground Baptist Church, constituted July 24, 1827, was the mother church of Cypress Pond Baptist Church, organized in 1867 by freed slaves, shortly after the Civil War. From Cypress Pond Baptist Church came Walker Grove Baptist, possibly organized in the early twentieth century. Research continues into this now abandoned church and text will be added as more information surfaces. There is a school associated with the church and similarly, little is known of it at this point.
We do know that Walker Grove church and school were part of the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Association, domiciled in Guyton. The Association began in 1868, shortly after emancipation. The former slaves still could and did attend white churches but they were segregated, and they could not fully participate in the services. The history states that “One Sunday morning after regular church service at Goodwill Baptist Church in Sylvania, Ga. Bro. Inman E Bryant, Bro. March Kent, Bro. Raleigh Bryant. Bro. J. S. Scott and Bro. Oscar Grant acknowledged their call from God to preach the gospel. They approached Rev. Edenfield and Rev. McCall and asked them to ordain them as preachers of the gospel”.
The three pastors were now ordained and they began to organize African American churches in Screven, Bulloch and Effingham County, traveling by mule and wagon. For the first three years, they concentrated on getting black churches up and running. They then began to form an organization to assist the member churches with problems and issues of the day, and one of the major issues was the education of young people. There were no high schools for them and only a few of the churches had the one-room elementary schools that were beginning to emerge to serve the African Americans.
The name “Pilgrim” was chosen for the Association. The first moderator was Rev. Inman E. Bryant who served from 1871 – 1893. The first annual session was held in 1871. During Rev. Bryant’s administration, a high school was established with the name of The Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Normal and Industrial Institute. It was the only high school for blacks in Effingham County from 1889 – 1936. After serving the black community for 56 years, the school was closed in 1936, when Effingham County built a public training school for African Americans.
The above facts are from an association history by Wilbert Manor, Clerk and Historian.
We think it is important to understand how these little rural churches were formed. And we think it is very important to understand the role of the schools that were associated with many of them. Most of them are gone and, sadly, the Walker Grove School will soon join them. Most of the schools that are still with us were formed in the late 19th and early 20th century to serve the rural black communities, and they did so well into the 1930s and 40s and sometimes later. These schools were often the only access that African Americans had until “equalization schools” emerged in the 1950’s. The black communities did not have full access to local county-supported schools until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1965. The abandoned church you see here and the little schoolhouse that is almost gone have to be seen in that context. It is too late for the school, but perhaps the little church that served this community for so long can still be saved.
As of 2021, a savior has stepped up to ensure that the history at Walker Grove Church is not lost. A local woman, Zandra Overstreet, worked diligently through the pandemic, with limited funds to save this historic site and in 2022, the church opened its doors for an Open House and picnic lunch for the first time in countless years. Read more about the incredible efforts that were made to save this church HERE.
The "double tower" configuration is a common architectural feature of African American churches. The towers take many forms but a single entry centered between the towers is seen in many of the old churches.
The double door entry to Walker grove with its unique carved doors and triangular transom lights (windows). The simple floral design carved into each raised panel was machine made. One of the doors is a modern, inexpensive replacement for a missing door.
The placement of a window behind the pulpit was a common practice in many older churches, but they have invariably been covered. This choir loft box was added some time after construction of the church as its sides panels are of a material that became available in the 1930-1940 time period. The pulpit is quite ornate with flat panels and wide ogee molding. The room behind the pulpit area was added.
A choir loft enclosed by a low wall is another unique feature of this church
Water damage to the roof has caused the cellulose panels to saturate and fall away from the ceiling in two areas, revealing the beaded tongue and groove paneling, a common building material in the 1880-1930 period. There are two types of pews in the church, and it is probable that the slat-type pews conform to the time period when the church was built and are likely original to the church (turn of the century or later). The vaulted type suspended truss ceiling is somewhat unique in that its longer than usual shoulders give a more pronounced cathedral impression.
This bulletin board was lovingly saved even as the last service was held some years ago. The African American rural churches and the education of its congregants has been one of the missions since emancipation. Even though the school next door has been abandoned for decades, if we try, we can hear the voice of this teacher in the church who sought out these pictures to teach his or her students of their proud history. You can feel the church’s resolve to inculcate these students with pride in their heritage. It bespeaks such hope that this next generation would feel the presence of these important role models to motivate them to create a fairer, more just world. "Since pride of race is one of the most powerful incentives to noble effort, the good deeds of individual Negroes and the contributions to civilization of the race as a whole should be taught in every school for Negroes.” - Tennessee Negro Education Association, 1933 as quoted in the Journal of Social History, Winter 2012, 344.
The pews pictured here are of an old design, very much like the pews found at Bark Camp Church (1847) and Jones Creek Baptist (organized in 1810 but the current building dates to 1852), in Jenkins and Long Counties respectively. They undoubtedly predate Walker Grove by decades. Looking beyond the wear and tear of scores of years’ use one can see in these pews the finest craftsmanship. The builder of the Walker Grove pews paid a great deal of attention to detail. The wood’s surface has been planed to absolute flatness and ornamental beading added. The fact that they still serve attests to the craftsman’s skill. These pews were built as right side and left side pews. The two ends of each pew are of a different design, one end having the support structure the same as the opposite end, but lacking the upright portion. This means they were designed so that one end went against a wall opposed to both ends opening onto an aisle. Undoubtedly these pews originated at another church, perhaps Cypress Pond or even Middle Ground Baptist or some other older church in the area.
The back of one of the old pews shows wide heart pine boards with ornamental bead and foot rest added. The patina it has acquired has given it beautiful color, befitting of one of the finest woods once abundant in Wiregrass Georgia.
What a peaceful photo that captures the quiet serenity of contemplation and the perfect place to do it.
Even less is known about Walker Grove School than is known about the church. It was a two room school house with a wood heater in each room. Chalk boards are gone now but where they once hung is evident. Pine benches and shuttered windows complete the scene. The school is in a “falling down” state and it would take a very serious effort to save it.
This photo shows the interior of one of the two rooms at Walker Grove School. The door to the right of the frame opened onto the covered porch. The wall in the center of the frame, the one with the two pieces of plywood and an open door, divided the school into two rooms, one the mirror image of the other. The plywood was placed at some point in time to cover two large, shuttered openings. The shutters could be opened or folded back to allow students in both rooms to see whatever program was occurring. There are two small windows, one visible in the frame, in the left or back wall, providing very little light. The four large shuttered windows were the main source of light and the school benches were placed so that the students’ backs were to these windows, allowing reading light to come in over their shoulders. One of the original benches can be seen against the back wall below the small window. The badly deteriorated roof section corresponds with the badly deteriorated floor area beneath. This section of roof is the area through which the wood heater flu passed and connected with the chimney. As water entered over time the wood structure supporting the brick chimney rotted and gave way, resulting in brick being scattered about, many on the ground now as water also rotted the floor. The pipe lying on the floor was part of another project and had nothing to do with the school. If you look carefully you will see a portion of the cast iron upright in which the school bell was mounted, still attached to a short section of the post that supported it in the schoolyard.
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This is so beautiful. It needs to be restored as an important part of black Americans.
Thanks for the information on this church. I would like to visit and photograph it next weekend and am trying to figure out which direction the front of the church faces. The satellite map has it obscured by trees. It appears as if it faces NW. Is that correct? Also, is the church open or do I need to get permission from someone to enter?
We think it is more SW. Not sure if the church is open or not. The school is, although it is in bad shape.
Thanks for the info. I plan on stopping by this Sunday.
This is a beautiful church. Look at those pine planks.