Brick Baptist Church and Penn Center, both in St. Helena, South Carolina, are two significant hallmarks of African-American history with which many people are unfamiliar.
Built by enslaved people in 1855, Brick Baptist Church is the oldest church on St. Helena Island. Initially it was a place of worship for White plantation owners with their “higher-ranking” slaves allowed to worship in the balcony, according to a Kelly tour guide Eveline Stevenson. In time, the church was turned over to 8,000 former slaves after plantation owners fled the area.
The Penn School was opened in the church with 132 students as one of the first schools for freed slaves. During the Civil Rights Movement, it served as the only location in South Carolina where interracial groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Peace Corps as well as Martin Luther King Jr. could have sanctuary in an era of mandated segregation. King once walked the grounds there and delivered an early version of his “I Have a Dream” speech at the church.
Today, the two entities attract visitors seeking to learn about African-American history and Gullah culture in South Carolina.
During a three-hour Gullah-Geechee bus tour in early February that began in Beaufort, South Carolina, and included Ladys Island and Saint Helena Island, Stevenson shared highlights of Gullah history such as how 10,000 Africans from Angola and Congo were kidnapped and brought to Saint Helena to work the rice, indigo and cotton fields. Families of former enslaved people still inhabit the area, 6,000 of which are descendants of those former slaves.
She explained the difference between Gullah and Geechee people is where those kidnapped landed in the U.S. Those who were off-loaded on South Carolina islands became known as Gullah, and those taken off ships on Georgia islands became known as Geechee, she said.
Stevenson took visitors to one of the last remaining praise houses on the island where “low-ranking slaves” were allowed to worship. The tiny white house remains an active part of the community with services and meetings still held there.
Recently in a Penn Center dining hall, Marion “Rollen” Chalmers was preaching the gospel of rice.
The farmer who grows “heritage grains” such as Carolina gold rice and Charleston gold rice, touts the health and taste advantages of his grains compared to most of the traditional rice found in grocery stores.
Chalmers says these grains are not bleached and striped of their nutritional value as are many commercially produced grains. They are also cold milled, which also does not rob the grain of its germ.
Chalmers was part of a Black History Month program Feb. 4 and was joined by chef Benjamin “BJ” Dennis to educate an audience about the differences between commercially mass-produced grains and heritage grains such as Sea Island yellow flint grits and Sea Island red rice and grocery store white and brown rice and grits.
Heritage grains are healthier, according to Chalmers, as they are cultivated without the use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals. He said his rice requires refrigeration or freezing to maintain freshness. They also have a distinct aroma and taste and are often featured in high-end restaurants. These days vegetables are bred for shelf life and durability at the expense of healthiness and flavor, Chalmers said.
Dennis, who used one of the heritage grains in a rice dish he demonstrated before the audience, added that enslaved people in America were often given “broken rice” as a less quality starch but if cooked properly it can be more appealing than longer grain rice. He noted that many fine restaurants use broken rice as grits and risotto.
A native of Charleston, Dennis, a personal chef and caterer who has spent time in Africa, infuses the flavors and culture of South Carolina’s Lowcountry into his Gullah Geechee cuisine.
For more information on the Penn Center, go to penncenter.com and for details about the Gullah Geechee tour, go to kellytoursbeaufort.com.
Go to visitbeaufortsc.org for general travel information for the area.