Audio portrait: Soapstone Baptist Church

Jun 27, 2017

There's quite a lot of history here. -- Roosevelt Aiken

Tucked into the rolling hills of the upstate South Carolina piedmont, a small country church is the remnant of a settlement of African American slaves in the years after the Civil War. This visit to Soapstone Baptist Church is an audio portrait of a historic community and its ancestors…

Roosevelt Aiken: The church is built on this outcrop of rock, and this gives new emphasis to the Biblical “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”

Cleve Callison: Soapstone Baptist Church is an unusual structure. It's built on a small hill whose main feature is a huge outcrop of black, yes, soapstone, projecting out of the ground, way out in the country in the upstate South Carolina community of Liberia. That's a few miles from Pumpkintown, which is near Pickens. OK, it's about 20 miles from Greenville. My guide on a beautiful spring afternoon was a longtime member of the church.

Roosevelt Aiken: My name is Roosevelt Aiken. I’m Minister of Music here at the church, plus partly I’ve been dubbed Historian. My grandfather was preaching here in 1967, around the time when the Ku Klux Klan came through and burned the original church. I’ve been playing for churches for about 53 years.

Cleve Callison: Soapstone Church, and the community of Liberia, have a history dating back to just after the Civil War, when white landowners fled the area, leaving their former slaves behind. For decades their descendants farmed the land, built the church -- and South Carolina's first integrated school -- sort of. Blacks and a few whites reported to the same one room building. But they entered by separate doors, and were kept separate by a curtain in the middle. A hundred years after the Civil War, the start of a decline began.

Roosevelt Aiken: They built the church here, and that’s the original school building. There’s quite a lot of history here. It’s dwindled . . . well, the church has nine members.

Cleve Callison: No one was ever convicted in that bombing, but the little community rebuilt the church and with help from nearby Clemson University, restored the slave graveyard. Once a month the church sponsors an old-fashioned Southern fish fry to raise money for the church, and Roosevelt Aiken supplies a musical background.

Roosevelt Aiken: I’ve performed with Chocolate Thunder at the Montreal Jazz Festival for five years or so, and I’ve worked for Charley Pride. I’ve played Gilley’s, in Houston, Texas. . . All my music is a blessing from God, because he gets all the praise and all the glory for what I do, because I believe that He is the musician, all I do is push the notes.

Cleve Callison: After lunch, Roosevelt took me on a tour of the graveyard.

Roosevelt Aiken: There were originally 900 freed slaves, and the landowners couldn’t use it, because it was so hilly. And the slaves farmed the land anyway, and made the land prosperous. And the original landowners started calling this little community Liberia, Little Liberia, because there was only black people here.

Cleve Callison: Tell me about the graves here. We’re at the old slave graveyard.

Roosevelt Aiken: Some of the earliest legible dates are 1882. Clemson University came up and helped pinpoint lot of things that were, where the bodies were, because they probed. And the pH balance in the soil changes when there’s human remains. And so we know just about where every body lies. And wherever you see a flag, that’s a marker. There are a few still-legible names, but very, very few. This is a mass concentration, so this is what we chose to try to preserve under the National Heritage corridor.

Cleve Callison: Can we walk up there?

Roosevelt Aiken: Sure. [leaves rustle] . . . Her death date is 1882. She was fifteen years old, and she already had a husband and kids. . . This is soapstone. And soapstone is so pliable, you can cut it with your fingernail. So you can imagine how it deteriorates through wind and rain.

Cleve Callison: This is amazing. I didn’t know anything about this.

Roosevelt Aiken: Well, this is just a little hidden gem, it’s a little hidden gem. But the more people we can get to know about it, the better things’ll be.

Cleve Callison: Roosevelt Aiken was my guide to Liberia, South Carolina, and Soapstone Baptist Church. For WHQR, I'm Cleve Callison.

Cleve’s visit to Soapstone Baptist Church was recorded on May 20th, 2017.