A five-year history project has put Campbell Chapel AME Church in Bluffton on the National Register of Historic Places, a federal database of properties with significant value to the American story.
It began as an effort to give a new church leader the history of the Bluffton church, but became so much more.
Rev. Jon R. Black arrived in March 2015. By that time, Nathaniel “Nate” Pringle, president and founder of A Call to Action, and local historic preservationist Carolyn Coppola, founder of Celebrate Bluffton, had unearthed enough information to support the idea of national recognition.
“Nate Pringle was the person who really had the vision that there was a story to tell, even though nobody really knew it, and there was no documentation except for the deed,” Coppola said.
The church sits on less than an acre of land on Boundary Street in Old Town. It was built in 1853 for use by a white Methodist congregation.
After the Civil War, that congregation sold the church to nine freedmen in 1874. The new church owners renovated the building, established it as part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church conference and named it in honor of Jabez P. Campbell, the presiding bishop of the AME church at that time.
“They left no documentation, and all we have to go on is oral traditions and then what’s left in the built environment to corroborate the oral tradition,” said Coppola.
What the deed did provide was the names of those nine freedmen: Renty Fields, Jacob Chisolm, William Ferguson, Jeffrey Buncomb, William Smith (or Smiley), David Heyward, Christopher Bryan, Theodor Wilson and William Lightburn.
“We do know that at least one of the white trustees was the master of one of the freedmen. They were familiar with the building and had worshiped there with their owners,” said Coppola.
A Porcher descendant noted that Chisholm had been owned by James Porcher.
Many members are descendants of the original nine signatories, including Pringle’s family.
Although he could not be reached at press time for a comment, in a Town of Bluffton press release concerning the induction, Pringle said, “When we acknowledge and invest in our historic structures, voices of the past rise up and the entire town reclaims the story of those neighbors who has walked before us. When we honor our collective history, we honor all the facets of what makes us the community we today.”
Bluffton Town Councilman Fred Hamilton grew up in the church and said the designation gives the church its rightful identity in the historical district.
Not only is the actual structure important, Hamilton said, “It also brings awareness to the community that they can learn and really enjoy the fact that the story and history behind the structure is significant, and has shaped and formed the entire Bluffton community.”
Hamilton said the history of the church “tells the story that has so much lineage to the area because a lot of the residents still in Bluffton are descendants of the nine founders. That’s where we got nurtured, where we got fed, where we got taught, and where we really learned to understand our values,” he said.
The education portion of attending church was critical in the days of a rural economy where schools were few, far between and for the well-to-do. Farmers, sharecroppers and freedmen did not have access to schools, teachers or books, and so it fell to the Sunday school teachers to provide that knowledge, Coppola said.
“It’s one of the three areas that really elevate the story of Campbell Chapel,” she said. “First, resurgence of the AME church in the South: how that happens, what the priorities were in establishing the congregations and then get everyone into the classrooms, providing teachers and books. In those days, the children learned more in that one day in Sunday school than they would have going five days a week.”
Even if they could get to a school, most children worked the farms five or six days a week so Sunday was the only day available. The second point was the role of Sunday schools and how Campbell’s location was so critical.
“And third, we then see some of these former slaves are beginning to buy houses, and their bank accounts are beginning to accumulate, and there is a sense of hope in freedom because of what they’re gaining through the Campbell Chapel,” she added.
Black, who has now been at Campbell for four years, said the actual plan to renovate the old building began in 2004. Expectations for the building are to expand its presence in the Bluffton cultural community.
“The vital part is being able to rehab that building and present it to the community to do wonderful things, including working toward a variety of things from A to Z,” said Black, “but also as the hub of racial and social unity in downtown Bluffton. When you start to look at the history, it does point out places where we need to grow as people.
“We can’t wait,” Black said. “We’re going to celebrate the community as we have all of these wonderful festivals. The whole campus will be part of those celebrations. The historic chapel is going to be part of that with reenactments of old church services, revivals, prayer houses.”
The National Register of Historic Places announced Campbell Chapel AME Church’s place on the Register April 26.
“This is a huge accomplishment, one that honors an historic structure with a story which has never been told in a formal venue. The induction and its back-story give praise to the many hands and hearts which built this church, provided an educational space to African American children in Reconstruction and embodied the story of hope, resilience and dedication of freed men and women.” said Pringle.
The National Register of Historic Places is a list maintained by the National Park Service, which is a division of the United States Department of Interior.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.