The Old, Rugged Church at Silver Bluff

James Brown spent his final years in the tiny town of Beech Island, S.C. But Beech Island is famous for another reason. It's home to what most agree is the oldest African-American Baptist church in the country.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

One place where history seems to be holding on is Beech Island, South Carolina. Singer James Brown, the Godfather, lived in Beech Island until his death and a small church there claims to be the oldest African-American Baptist congregation in the country. It's called Silver Bluff Baptist Church.

Joshua Levs visited.

JOSHUA LEVS: Every Sunday, about 125 people sit in the red pews at Silver Bluff Baptist Church, where the choir director fires up the crowd.

Reverend BENNIE HOLMES (Silver Bluff Baptist Church): If you're standing in the need of a blessing - are you standing in the need of a blessing?

(Soundbite of applause)

Rev. HOLMES: I see too many people sitting down. Stand out there, standing in the need of a blessing. There should be some evidence for some standing in the need of a blessing.

LEVS: Folks have been standing at Silver Bluff services in Beech Island, South Carolina since before the Revolutionary War.

Rev. HOLMES: I am the 16th pastor in 256 years.

LEVS: That's Pastor Bennie Holmes. And if you're trying to do the math, it's an average tenure of 16 years per pastor, though he's only been here eight years. Suffice it to say, pastors stay at Silver Bluff a long, long time. Holmes says that's partly because it's so exciting to be a part of the place.

Rev. HOLMES: We had historians from across the country to authenticate that we are the mother of all black Baptist churches in America.

LEVS: In fact, while Beech Island has gotten attention in recent years as the home of James Brown, until his death in December, Pastor Holmes says Silver Bluff is the town's primary claim to fame.

Rev. HOLMES: I would say he would have to fall to number two compared to the church.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LEVS: Although it is not the only place claiming the title of oldest black Baptist church, history does support its case. And in fact, South Carolina passed a resolution last year making that declaration and telling the story of its founding. The church was created in 1750 by two white Englishmen. Slave owners began allowing their slaves to attend services.

Rev. HOLMES: The white slave master would allow the black slaves to sit in the hayloft or the loft while services was going on. And from the history that has been passed down, a lot of the blacks overpowered the whites, and the whites says, all right, you all could stay here at Silver Bluff and we'll go and build our own sanctuary, so...

LEVS: In other words, the slaves outnumbered the whites, so the whites picked up and left. Virginia Smith's family has come here for generations. She sees the church's founding in a positive light. She says the slave owners did something good by allowing the slaves to come.

Ms. VIRGINIA SMITH (Parishioner): They probably was bad, but they wasn't all that bad that they were so hardhearted that they didn't let their people come to learn about God.

LEVS: Whatever the slave owners' motivations were, the early success of Silver Bluff triggered something of a chain reaction. Soon another black church was set up in nearby Augusta, Georgia, and others followed. At one point Silver Bluff lost its building, but the members kept holding services. Then it got a new spot, where it is today.

Rev. HOLMES: We were here since 1873. This is the original deed...

LEVS: The deed hangs alongside paintings of previous pastors, including two who are buried on the property. Their gravestones lie on the front lawn. The church is on a quiet road in this sleepy town. It's been rebuilt over the years. It has a tall white steeple, but it's made mostly of red brick. Next door, there's a small white building used for Sunday school, a recreation of the two-room schoolhouse for blacks that used to be here. Virginia Smith attended that school when she was young. She is now 65 years old and still makes it to services each week.

Ms. SMITH: I feel very proud, very proud. I know we have had some ups and downs like everybody else. And it might not be packed full, you might not see all these pews packed full every Sunday, but we few that are here and the ones that come, we feel very proud and we come to serve the Lord.

LEVS: The church made it through slavery, the Civil War, segregation, the Civil Rights era and all the upheavals of the country's existence. And Holmes says it isn't going anywhere.

Rev. HOLMES: Without a doubt, I have no doubt in my mind about that. She will be around forever and a day.

(Soundbite of singing)

LEVS: For NPR News, I'm Joshua Levs.

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