PICKENS COUNTY—To many, Soapstone Baptist Church may not stick out, but inside the walls of this structure overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains is a deep history that has gone, for the most part, untold.
Born in 1943, Mable Owens Clarke is a decedent of freed slaves that lived in a small community called “Liberia” in northern Pickens County.
Clarke was born near the church, and the significance of the site, she said, is greater now than it ever has been.
“Soapstone is my heritage. That is my roots. I was born there on the land,” Clarke said. “Soapstone is like no other place in South Carolina. That’s how I truly feel. That church is my love.”
Founded after the Civil War by freed blacks on land donated by and purchased from their former masters, Liberia grew around Soapstone Church.
Built on an out-cropping of metamorphic soapstone, Soapstone Baptist is the site of quite a few historical locations, including a slave cemetery.
“The first black one-room school house, dating back to the early 1800s, still stands on the Soapstone Baptist Church property,” Clarke said. “I even had the opportunity to go to that school house.”
Clarke said her grandfather actually founded the church.
“My grandfather was the founder of Soapstone Church, so my connection there has always been deep,” Clarke said. “I’m just trying to get the church’s history out and let people know because Soapstone has been hidden secret that nobody really knows about. People don’t know about the first black school being located there or the slave cemetery on the property.”
Through the years, the church has endured adversity. Clemson Anthropology Professor Mike Coggeshall said the community dealt with tragedy in the late 1960s.
“The Soapstone Church was burned by the Ku Klux Klan in 1966, and I’ve never found it in the paper,” Coggeshall said. “Those kinds of antagonistic assaults explain why a lot of African Americans would have left, yet there are still communities here today (like the one in Liberia).”
Clarke, however, said her family did not skip a beat.
“My parents actually went around raising money and were able to rebuild it back in the same spot,” Clarke said. “People that lived in the community played a big role in rebuilding the church.”
Clarke said the church was built as a monument to human dignity and inter-racial cooperation.
Coggeshall, who spent a great deal of time researching this historical Pumpkintown location, said he just wants to tell the full history of Liberia.
“This is more than tracking family ancestry,” Coggeshall said. “What I’m trying to do with this Liberia story is humanize these people. I want to provide them with the dignity and humanness that they have been denied almost all their lives.”
“We have to remember that those who write history see that history through a certain kind a lens,” Coggeshall continued. “We need to be aware of the fact that there are other lenses through which that same history can be seen.”
Clarke said Soapstone’s livelihood is directly connected to its historical past.
“They story just hasn’t been told and I felt like the slaves buried in the cemetery there needed to have someone do that for them,” Clarke said. “That’s why we still do so much at Soapstone.”
Church services are still held every Sunday at 11:30 a.m., and on the third Saturday of every month Clarke and other church-goers host a “Fish-Fry” that features several southern dishes.
“It’s a full menu of fish, ribs and all kinds of different vegetables. We make everything from scratch,” Clarke said. “We do the fish fry as a part of the ministry. This is just one way we are able to keep the grass cut, keep the lights one and keep the historical site open.”
This is the first of a three-story series that will aim to tell the full-story of this small Pickens County community.