A Chronicle of Black History in Liberty County, Georgia
by Lillie Walthour Gillard
To understand and appreciate the history of the Blacks in Liberty County, one must know something about the history of the Midway Congregational Church. The two are vitally connected. This story begins in a little town called Dorchester in England some three hundred and forty-nine years ago.
1630. A group of Congregational Puritans emigrated from Dorchester, England, and settled near Boston, Massachusetts. There they established a church at a place they named Dorchester, after their home from which they came. The colony prospered, but five years later they moved to a location now known as Windsor, Connecticut.
1695. Families from Dorchester and Windsor decided to move again. This time to South Carolina, about eighteen miles above Charleston on the Ashley River. Again their colony was named Dorchester, and there they organized another church. This colony increased in size until the area was too small to accommodate them.
1752-1868. the descendants of this South Carolina colony, children and grandchildren, deemed another migration necessary. Securing a grant of approximately 32,000 acres of land from the trustees of Georgia, 280 whites and 536 slaves moved to a point halfway between the Savannah and the Altamaha rivers. This migration was over a period of several years. This area, because of its location, was already designated as Midway District, and the settlers established the Midway Congregational Church and Society on the road leading from Savannah to the Altamaha which Oglethorpe had surveyed after his settlement of Savannah in 1733.
The Midway church was composed of slaves and slaveholders. Dr. James Stacy stated in his history of the church: "It has been estimated that after the full establishment of the colony, there were as many as three hundred and fiftywhites and one thousand five hundred negroes, strictly connected and thoroughly identified with the Midway people." Accommodations for the religious instruction of the slaves were provided by slaveholders in the churches at Midway, Sunbury, and Jourdine's Hill.
There were Negroes who felt the call to preach among their own people at places called "stands." One was located near Midway church, and it was here that Mingo, a freedman who resided on Peter Winn's plantation, preached on Sundays between the morning and afternoon services in the church. He also held meetings at some of the plantations, especially at John Lambert's, who had a special interest in the spiritual welfare of the slaves. Another preacher was Jack, who belonged to Mr. Salturs, but lived on Mr. Lambert's plantation. The Midway church hired Jack to devote his entire time in ministering to his people. He was followed by Tony Stevens, another Negro who served under the supervision of the Midway church.
A meeting house was erected on land between the North and South Newport rivers in 1806 and was named "Pleasant Grove." According to Dr. Stacy's history of the Midway church, "Messrs. Bradwell, John Ashmore, Colonel Joseph Law and others held reading services" every Sunday for the Negroes in that area. Later the Methodist circuit riders made it a station from which the Negroes benefited.
The Baptists provided accommodations for the slaves in their new church at Sunbury, which was built in 1810 with the Reverend Charles O. Screven as minister. His assistant, Samuel S. Law, held services every Sunday afternoon for them.
The Midway Church Missionary Society was active in the 1830s and Dr. Stacy recorded: "The Reverend Charles Co1cock Jones was commissioned to preach two Sabbaths in the month to the whites in the destitute portions of the county, and the other Sabbaths and intervening days of the week to the negroes."
In 1833 the Reverend Mr. Jones began the organization of Sunday schools for the Negroes at the following places and dates of organization: Fraser's Station, August 18, 1833, with about fifty children; Pleasant Grove, January 12, 1834, organized and conducted by Barrington King and two ladies, with twenty pupils; Midway, May 11, 1834, with twenty-five children; Jonesville, 1834, and led by J. B. Mallard; Walthourville, 1834; Sunbury, 1834; Newport, March 22, 1835, with forty pupils; Gravel Hill, later Flemington, 1835, by John and Ezra Stacy, W. E. Quarterman and others.
Concerning this work among the Negroes, Dr. Stacy offered the following remarks: "1. it was effected under a variety of agencies. The missionary, Dr. Jones, was Presbyterian, and yet the church, in the bosom of which the work was conducted, was Congregational, the teachers generally being members of it. The association, directly charged with the management of it, was undenominational, members of other churches connected with it, Baptists being officers as well as others. No effort was made to induce the colored people to join Midway, it being left to their own free will. Many joined the Baptist churches at Sunbury and Newport. The different ministers employed with and after Dr. Jones, viz: Rev. Josiah S. Law, Rev. John Winn, Rev. R. Q. Way and Rev. R. Q. Andrews were all supported, as already stated, by the estate of Lambert, the church not paying a single cent. So it seems that Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists members of Midway church, and the estate of Lambert, all contributed, more or less, in connection with the labors of Dr. Jones, to the grand result."
After one hundred years of prosperity came the Revolutionary War, bringing destruction to the homes and the churches. The colonists rebuilt, but they now realized that their location here in the low and swampy district was not desirable. Malaria fever posed a threat to the health of the inhabitants, and they gradually began to establish summer homes, or retreats, away from the rice fields.
Then came the Civil War and Sherman's march to the sea. The results were disastrous. Houses and churches were again burned; the plantations were in ruins and the owners so impoverished they were no longer able to remain in the area. When the white man vanished from the land, he left slaves behind. After the passing of the Union troops, the freed slaves returned to their quarters. Theirs was a struggle-a struggle to own the land-exhausting their meager resources, leaving them almost nothing for food or clothing; a struggle to survive-with large families, no one with money to hire them or buy the produce they: could raise (rice, cotton, corn), no horses or mules or implements to cultivate the little patches of ground they owned or rented.
In the ante-bellum days, the state of Georgia forbade the teaching of reading and writing to slaves. Now these people struggled to survive with no knowledge of business, no education, nothing to help them grow financially, mentally or spiritually. Left to shift for themselves in deep poverty and ignorance these Negroes began to slip back to their former ways. They built their cabins among the live oaks and cypresses, the walls open and the roofs leaky. They subsisted on the meager fare as they could raise on their patches of land.
1868. A missionary of the American Missionary Association stationed in Atlanta and exploring a portion of the Black Belt of Georgia, literally stumbled upon Midway. Here he held a religious service in the evening and learned of the changed condition of the locality. Discovering that the missionary was a Congregationalist, his host for the night, a white man, related for him a detailed history of the Midway church. So excited was the missionary about his discovery that he pleaded for funds to start a school among the freedmen.
One teacher, Miss Plimpton, had the care of the infant school, and for two years she labored with no one to assist her. Boarding with a black family on fare unknown to the Northern palate, she supplemented with food sent her from her home in Massachusetts. Her school room served as reception room, parlor, washroom, laundry and chapel. Ignorance, rudeness and superstition formed the environment. There was no refined or educated person with whom to enjoy a moment's chat, or spend a social evening. This was mission work pure and simple. It made Dorchester Academy possible. The school Miss Plimpton started continued until 1879. In that year a new building was constructed with funds furnished by the American Missionary Association and the people of McIntosh, at a cost of $1,100, and it was given the name Dorchester Academy, from its Puritan history.
There he found people attending religious services under a bush arbor-a wooden frame with the limbs of bushes and trees spread over the top to protect the worshippers from the sun. This minister, the Reverend Floyd Snelson, and 103 members of the old Midway congregation which had been formed more than a hundred years earlier, formally assembled under the name of the Midway Congregational Church. On July 27, 1874, a council formed of members of the churches in Savannah, Belmont, Ogeechee and Woodville, answered the call of this body and granted the request that the hand of Christian fellowship be extended the officers and members. Churches of other denominations participating in the proceedings were the Methodist Episcopal and Second Street Baptist churches in Savannah. An old Congregational church was reorganized and recognized. On September 30, 1874, there were 117 members of the church and 25 members of the Sunday school. A church building costing $2,000 was started in 1876 and completed in 1882.
1879. Upon his return from Africa the Reverend Floyd Snelson reported to the American Missionary Association ... "Notwithstanding the unpleasant situation of a church worshipping in a house unfinished and unprovoked with heaters in the month of January, we determined to observe the week of prayer. During this period, nineteen young people became converted and were united with the church on March 23-the communion season. The Reverend R. F. Markham, who had charge of the work of the American Missionary Association in and around Savannah, conducted the services, delivering the preparatory lecture on Saturday and the sermon on Sunday morning, assisted with communion and delivered a lecture on the association in the afternoon. Approximately 1,000 persons were in attendance, 700 people in the house and about 300 outside who could not possibly get in.
nicely furnished and very conveniently arranged, was dedicated by Dr. J. R. Roy, Field Superintendent of the American Missionary Association.The address was rich and full of instruction. He dwelt principally upon the blessings of the family institution of home; the duties of the three divisions of the family in the relation which sustains to the other. The amount of $50.00 was pledged toward the debt of $100.00 due on the new building. Five dollars of this amount was given by Judge E. Fulton (white).
"On Monday night, Dr. Roy delivered at our church a lecture on "Our Country," illustrated by his large map. This was a grand treat to all. The whites present expressed themselves as highly pleased.
April 15. Ten buggies and one-horse wagons, well loaded with ministers, delegates and spectators, journeyed fourteen miles northwest to a council of churches (Midway, Ogeechee and Savannah) for the purpose of organizing a church at Cypress Slash. Dr. Roy represented the American Missionary Association; the Rev. J. R. McLean served as scribe and the Rev. Floyd Snelson, moderator . . . fifteen persons were then baptized; twenty were received by confession, twenty-eight from other churches-forty-eight in all.
"Five deacons were then ordained ... Several whites were present; one white lady, who assisted largely in providing dinner for our company. I must acknowledge this to be the first place in the South where I have seen a white man ask prayer among the colored people at their meeting. Another important Congregational seed is planted ...”
During the 1800s other Negro congregations, formerly part of the slaveholder religious experience, began to form separate organizations under their own leadership.
The oldest church-the First African Baptist of Riceboro-dates its history back to 1849 ... "beginning as a two story building owned by whites. The whites and slaves worshipped together. The slaves sat in the balcony." In the year 1853 the congregation had its first Negro minister, the Reverend Charles Phin. He was followed by the Reverend H. L. Houston. From this body the following churches had their origins: First Zion Baptist of Riceboro in 1870, First African Baptist of Jones in 1896 and Baconton Baptist of Allenhurst in 1897.
The Reverend Joseph Williams, a native of the West Indies, came to Liberty County from Macon, Georgia, in the year 1867. On April 12, 1868, he organized a Presbyterian church in the building of "Old Midway" church with 300 members and worshipped there for eighteen years. This congregation became part of Knox Presbytery and of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., and was known as the Midway Presbyterian Church.
Following a period of controversy over the rights of occupancy of Old Midway-Congregational or Presbyterian-the Reverend Mr. Williams organized a group of forty-six persons formerly members of a church pas to red by Dr. C. C. Jones. In 1880 the church moved to Riceboro where a new building was constructed with the assistance of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
1887. The Ebenezer Presbyterian Church was organized at Freedman Grove. This church was also under the pastorate of the Reverend Mr. Williams.
1892. The congregation occupying the old Midway church, moved into Midway Chapel, which formerly served as a school building and in 1895 Midway Temple Presbyterian Church was built and dedicated. A loan of $1,000 from the Board of Erections, Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.; $200 in cash and $1,200 in labor made this building possible. Many questions have been raised as to the origin and significance of the hand at the top of the Midway Temple Presbyterian Church pointing to the sky. It is said that Arthur Waite, son of the Reverend James H. Waite, carved and presented this work of art to the church.
A shrine on the grounds of the Ebenezer Presbyterian Church in Freedman Grove marks the burial place of the Reverend Joseph Williams.
Methodist churches existed in the county during this period. Among the oldest was in the Taylors Creek area and was organized about the year 1865. Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Hinesville, was organized in 1868. Listed among its founders were the Reverend B. H. Hightower, Katie Bacon and Lathas Goodson.
1896. The Reverend A. L. DeMond reported to the American Missionary Association . . . "the class of '96 received their diplomas from the hand of Principal Foster; a new event was chronicled in the history of this school and of Liberty County. This was the first class of colored students that has ever graduated in this county." The Reverend Mr. DeMond further reported: "The baccalaureate sermon was preached in the Midway Congregational Church by the pastor, the Rev. A. L. DeMond. His subject was "Character, Conduct and Culture, the Foundations for Success in Life." The graduating exercises included an oration by a young man on the "Past, Present and Future of the Negro" and an essay by a young lady on "The Opportunities for the Women of Our Race.”
This school is situated in the center of an area fifteen miles square that contains six thousand colored people. Then we consider that this area is flanked on all sides by others almost as densely populated, and that into all the surrounding counties the graduates and students from this institution carry the light of learning as they go to teach, we see directly and indirectly no less than ten thousand people are educationally blessed and benefited by the work done here by the American Missionary Association, without which they would be in mental and spiritual darkness. "
1899. From a report by Warren O. Waterman: "Dorchester Academy, from its establishment in 1871, did work for many years with only the primary and grammar grades. It now has about 35 pupils in the normal department, 50 in the grammar, 100 in the intermediate and 250 in the primary grades.
"The school plant includes a recitation building, which though recently enlarged is inadequate to the needs of the school; the church houses the primary grades, a shop for industrial training, boys' quarters, a teacher's home, a girls' quarters and boarding hall.
The Negro population of Liberty County, about sixty-five percent of the total numbers about nine thousand. Most of them own their land, on which they grow cotton, cane and rice, but prices are low and money is scarce. Tuition is often paid in poultry, vegetables or fat pine for starting fires. Eggs purchase postage stamps and sometimes appear in the collection plates in church and Sunday School.
Church services are held all the year round although the attendance, of course, is much greater during the session of the school. The Sundays are almost too full to be restful, beginning even Saturday night with a Bible class for the whole school which takes up in advance the Sunday School lesson of the next day. But no one feels that anything can be omitted, as all the exercises implant the lessons of Christian character which will tell on the community when the young people go forth to their life work.
In the early 1900s there were small schools for the Negroes in several communities in the county. They were known as Briar Bay, Clay Bank, Daniel, Hickory Hill, Hinesville, McIntosh, Palmetto, Riceboro, Seabrook and Thebes.
Much of the quoted information is taken from The American Missionary, the Archives of The American Missionary Association, 287 Fourth Avenue, New York, N.Y.