A year after being named to the National Historic Registry, Bluffton’s historic Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church is ready for a remodel. Thanks to a $140,000 Beaufort County Council accommodations tax grant, the congregation can now take the initial steps of turning the church into a museum and cultural art center.
The chapel on Boundary Street 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 goal of the project, said Rev. Dr. Jon R. Black, the church’s pastor, is to return the interior to the style it was when it was sold to the formerly enslaved individuals. Defining that aspect will be handled by a preservationist, one of three parts needed in the project’s phase one.
“The engineer’s project will be to make sure we can properly drain the entire campus,” said Black. “One need is to ensure that stormwater issues are properly controlled. We’ll also have a preservationist architect so that the structure is strengthened, but according to preservation standards. Everyone is working each of these steps together as a team.”
The church sits on less than an acre of land on Boundary Street in Old Town. Next door is the newer sanctuary, completed in 2004, where services were held until the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated its closing. Services are held via conference video.
When the church was initially sold, the new 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.
“Phase one is the administrative portion of the project. When we’re finished with that, we’ll be able to bid it out to contractors,” Black said. “We’re hoping phase 1 will be done by the end of the calendar year, and that’s taking extra time because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The restoration project is expected to cost $2 million and to be completed in two years. When finished, the restored building will be a state-of-the-art museum and cultural arts center, adding to the historic and popular features already found in Old Town Bluffton.
“We’re going to celebrate the community as we have all of these wonderful [Bluffton] festivals,” Black said after the church was placed on the Register on April 26, 2019. “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.”
Black also anticipates that there will be daily tours, preservation lectures and dinners, and a place for destination weddings and private rentals. The work of local Gullah-Geechee artists will be exhibited and sold.
The edifice is within walking distance of the Heyward House, Garvin-Garvey House, Martin Family Park, Dubois Park and the Oyster Factory Park.
“For tourism, this will be a great addition but an even bigger attraction is our building being a cultural center for Old Town Bluffton and for the community. This will preserve and present the history of our community and provide the present generation with tools for racial, social and cultural reconciliation,” Black said. “It began as a white church, was bought by slaves and now serves a Hispanic congregation. We see it as a place to hold those difficult conversations where we can develop unity in the community.”
Black added that the finished restoration will reveal and use as much of the original fabric as possible, while replicating other facets in keeping with preservation requirements.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.