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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.