Soapstone Baptist Church

and

Liberia Community

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History

History of Liberia

While Native Americans had lived in the area for tens of thousands of years, Euro-Americans began settling the Upstate in the late 18th century. Many white landowning families owned slaves, who worked the farms, mills, and shops. While individuals generally owned about 10 slaves or less, even non-slave owners profited from enslaved black labor.  

According to the 1860 Slave Census, over 4,000 enslaved African Americans lived in Pickens District (present-day Pickens and Oconee Counties). Documented names of enslaved locals include Katie (Owens), Emerson (Kemp), and Joseph (McJunkin -- in northern Greenville County). After 1865, these newly-freed slaves generally settled in the same areas where they had lived prior to freedom.
 

Location of Liberia 

Although today a beautiful valley with a great view of the Blue Ridge, the area surrounding Soapstone Baptist Church was, in 1865, relatively worthless land because it was hilly and off the main roads. Throughout the South, including Pickens County, former white slaveholders needed their crops harvested but had no money to pay their newly-freed slaves, who now could bargain for their labor. Thus, white land owners were compelled to trade land for labor. However, former slaveholders did not surrender their best farmland to their former slaves, but instead they traded poorer land off the main transportation routes.

From the perspective of the African Americans, however, this land provided them with a secure means of production and a secluded enclave where they could speak their minds, practice their religion, teach their children, and protect their families and traditions. Throughout the South, including the Southern Appalachians, such black freedom colonies blossomed.
 

Naming of Liberia 

Several stories exist about the naming of Liberia. According to McJunkin family tradition, freed slave Joseph McJunkin remembered having come from the nation of Liberia on the West African coast, and so he named the community after his homeland. More likely, the area was named “Liberia” because it served as a substitute for a short-lived back-to-Africa movement sweeping the South, particularly South Carolina, after the Civil War.

The place name “Liberia” has deep historical roots. Since the late nineteenth century, the area was called “Liberia” in newspaper articles and in obituaries of residents (see Liberia, South Carolina for citations) [make this an interactive link]. In History of Pumpkintown-Oolenoy (B. H. Reece, 1970, pp. 41-44), the author calls the place “Liberia.” In an old photograph of Emerson Kemp, the place name is “Liberia.” When given a chance to name the road through the community, the Owens Family selected “Liberia Road.” It appears “Little Liberia” is a relatively recent place name.
 

Reconstruction 

During Reconstruction, African Americans could vote (males only), hold public office, serve on juries, attend public schools, own their own property, and work for fair wages. Throughout the South, black freedom colonies prospered during this period. For example, in 1870, the Pumpkintown Census District (including Liberia) was about 28% African American, including the former slaves (listed above) and their relatives and descendants; the community had a church and school. These institutions provided Liberia’s residents with multiple opportunities for social success. 
 

Segregation 

With the election of Ben Tillman as governor of South Carolina and the revised 1895 state constitution, “Jim Crow” laws legally establishing segregation caused many African Americans to flee the state (an emigration pattern common to the South). Better economic opportunities for African Americans also developed in northern and western cities. By the 1920 US Census, the black population of the Pumpkintown District had declined to only 9%.

Throughout the South under Jim Crow segregation, black freedom colonies presented an affront to many whites, seeking to maintain white supremacy.  Even in Liberia, blacks felt this pressure. Oral tradition tells of whites loaning black farmers money with their land as collateral; unable to repay the loans, blacks lost their land. Liberia’s residents faced lynchings, gun fights, and assaults that created a culture of terror to keep blacks in fear. In April 1967, local arsonists burned the old Soapstone Baptist Church and a vacant, black-owned family home. Despite this culture of terror and the crushing effects of the inequality of segregation, African Americans in Liberia (and throughout the South) resisted and persisted. 


Liberia Today

Rebuilt with widespread white and black community support, the new Soapstone Baptist Church has risen on the same soapstone boulder its predecessors sat upon. With a present congregation of fewer than 10 people, the church and community persist.

Because of a deathbed promise to her mother, Mable Owens Clarke (great-granddaughter of former slaves Katie Owens and Joseph McJunkin) does everything she can to keep the doors of the church open and the history of the community alive. To assist Mable in her mission, all profits from the monthly fish fries return to the community, as do all the royalties and speaker’s fees from sales of the Liberia oral history.


African colony

Off the main valley of the Oolenoy, Liberia prospered (in 1870, the Pumpkintown Census District [including Liberia] was approximately 28% Black), as hundreds of freed slaves gathered with family and friends in a protected area, away from white oversight. Community founders such as Aunt Katie Owens, Emerson Kemp, and James McJunkin (Greenville County) and their families established a school, started Soapstone Church (founded by McJunkin), and built the Liberia Community.

Over decades, however, as Reconstruction protections faded during the Jim Crow era in the late nineteenth century, many blacks left for better economic opportunities, especially in the factories up North. Racism and repression drove other blacks from the area, and tuberculosis and the Great Depression of the early twentieth century drove still others away. Less than 40 black residents remained in the Liberia area by 1950.

In April 1967, local arsonists burned the old Soapstone Baptist Church and a nearby vacant home, but both white neighbors and black residents contributed time, labor, money, and love to rebuild the church and (more recently) the fellowship hall. Today, the church holds monthly fish fries to support the church and community.
 

For further information on the community’s history, see Liberia, South Carolina: an African American Appalachian Community, by John M. Coggeshall (University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

 


For more information contact
Mable Clarke
296 Liberia Road
Pickens, SC  29671

(864) 414-8470

 
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