“The whole family worshiped there,” said native Blufftonian Renty Kitty Jr. A deacon himself, Kitty’s family was integral in the life of this particular place of worship. “My mother, father, sisters, myself. It was a family worship for the families in Simmonsville and Buck Island community,” he said.
The Simmonsville house is one of three surviving Bluffton praise houses. Another is behind the Cordray House on the corner of Calhoun and May River Road, and the other – known as the Bluffton Tabernacle, built in 1935 – is now a pottery studio on Church Street.
Built about 1910, the Simmonsville structure used to be located on Belfair Plantation until the 1950s. Local history notes that volunteers – led by deacons with very familiar local family names – organized the move when the plantation was sold to developers. Among those were Rev. Jimmy Buncomb, and deacons Oscar Frazier and “Daddy Toy” Fields.
Once in place, those who lived on Simmonsville and Buck Island who did not have the transportation to get into town to worship at the “big churches” – such First Zion Baptist Church, St. John’s Baptist Church and Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church – could attend regular services at the praise house.
“The praise house was mostly for Sunday night and weeknight services,” Kitty said. “At the main church for the Baptists and Campbell AME, the service was once a month. There wasn’t any local pastor, so when the pastor came to the main church, everyone would worship there on Sunday.”
Praise house services weren’t particularly long, Kitty said.
“They’d do a devotional service, and a hymn, and then one of the deacons would get up and speak to the people,” he said. “The deacons were Renty Kitty, Elliot Pinckney and Oscar Frazier. And George Bush would sometimes come out from Goethe Road.”
Kitty recalls the singing.
“They would sing all the old hymns, and there would be shouting and praise time. Most of the hymns these days, we try to keep them traditional, but I would think that if the opportunity came up people would sing the old hymns,” he said. “I remember one of them was “I Had a Chance,” and “I Done Done What They Told Me To Do.” We still sing “Amazing Grace” and “Go Down Moses.”
Repairing the little praise house is a work in progress, and a committee from First Zion is working on getting the preserved structure repaired and designated as a historic structure on the National Register of Historic Places.
There are several other praise houses in Beaufort County, perhaps the most notable is the Mary Jenkins House on St. Helena Island, which already is on the register.
There will be a chance closer to home to learn about praise houses and the life of enslaved people during the times when they were encouraged to attend church, and “permitted” to have their own places of worship.
Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park will host the 2022 Freedom Walk in honor of National Freedom Day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 5 in conjunction with the 26th annual Gullah Celebration.
One of the structures on the site is a reproduction of a praise house, a homestead house, a bateau and more; individuals can tour the site at their leisure or sign up for guided tours.
Speakers at this event will include Rev. Dr. Robin Dease of St. Andrew By-The-Sea Methodist Church and Dr. John Newman of Volunteers in Medicine. The celebration also includes surprise guests, vaccine availability, screenings, and wellness information provided by Memory Matters, Hilton Head Hospital, Hilton Head Regional Healthcare Senior Center, and Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue’s Life Safety department.
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the park’s mission is to replicate, preserve, and sustain an historically significant site and to educate the public about the sacrifice, resilience and perseverance of the freedmen of Mitchelville.
Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park is at 229 Beach City Road, Hilton Head Island. For more information, visit exploremitchellville.org or call 843-255-7301.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.