For more than a century, St. James Baptist Church on Hilton Head Island has served as a "beacon of light" for those seeking guidance and discipline, said the Rev. Charles Hamilton Sr.
It's a tale of struggle, perseverance and resilience -- a tale in which faith, discipline and family anchored a community and culture some say has been long-forgotten and ignored.
Nearly 100 people gathered Sunday under the shade of a large oak tree to make sure the tale lives on and the work of generations is never forgotten.
Church members, friends, clergy and local government leaders clapped at the unveiling of a new South Carolina historical marker commemorating the cultural and historical significance of the church, founded on Hilton Head in 1886 by former members of the First African Baptist Church.
St. James is the oldest continuously operating cultural institution remaining within historic Mitchelville, a village established for freed slaves in 1862, according to church leaders and historians.
The marker was approved by the S.C. Department of Archives and History in collaboration with the S.C. African Heritage Commission.
"It's a history of national and even international importance," said Michael Marks, president and CEO of the Coastal Discovery Museum. "Many are going to look on this marker as a story about the history of this church, and it certainly is. What I will choose to look at it as is the beginning of a new future; a future that will pull together the story of this church, the ancestors here and story of Mitchelville -- how its early beginnings set the stage for a transition of some 4 million slaves to freed people. It is indeed a great day."
Dr. Emory Campbell, chairman of the Gullah-Geechee National Heritage Corridor Commission, said religion was key to success and freedom for most freed slaves, with churches serving as critical institutions for spiritual, moral and civic guidance.
"The church congregations were key to people being organized and neighborhoods being established," Campbell said. "It kept the moral compass for the community and issued discipline when people got out of line. ... Today is a great example of the partnerships the commission is looking to form to preserve history. St. James has done a great job in that vein and is ahead of the curve."
The unveiling was the culmination of work begun by church members in December 2009, gathering bits and pieces of the native-islander church's history scattered "all over the place," said deacon Perry White.
A fire in 1945 destroyed the old sanctuary and its contents. Another fire in 1968 destroyed the home of a church officer, where St. James records were stored. The present brick sanctuary is the third to serve the congregation. It was built in 1972 and renovated in 2005, according to information on the marker.
"The key was a verbal history from generation to generation, in particular a story told about this church by an old woman who told it to a young woman who wrote it down, which we have a copy of as well as the obituary of the old woman," White said.
A plaque dated 1921 also was found, and showed a church at approximately the same location St. James is today, he said.
"To respect and pass the history on, it became part of my DNA to get this done. ... It was a labor of love," White said. "It's important we connect our past with the present."
Church members and clergy said they intend for the marker to send a signal that the church is "here to stay" as pressure builds to cut trees and extend the runway at nearby Hilton Head Island Airport, which St. James leaders and others say will harm the church.
"We won't get out, sell out or be pushed out," said Hamilton, senior pastor of St. James. "Let no one underestimate the power of God to protect his people. ... We are like the tree planted by the river. We shall not be moved."