During centuries of bondage, even worship occurred "always under the watchful eye of the slave owner," native island historian Emory Campbell said Sunday.
Campbell, along with dozens of members of area churches, stood at the historic site of Mitchelville where former slaves first freely gathered at First African Baptist Church.
The congregation, Hilton Head Island's oldest, celebrated 150 years of faith and prayer on Sunday. The church was founded in 1862 in the nation's first freedman's village of Mitchelville, and was a cornerstone of freed slaves' new lives -- it's where they were first permitted to own land, build schools, shops, homes and a house of worship.
Campbell, who read a history of the church at Sunday's sesquicentennial ceremony, said its first pastor, escaped slave the Rev. Abraham Murchison, wanted to spiritually enrich his congregation but also wanted them to have ownership of their lives. The church predated the Emancipation Proclamation, and Murchison helped recruit black soldiers to fight for the Union in the Civil War in addition to leading services, Campbell said.
As years passed and the number of "souls" in Mitchelville grew, visitors to First African Baptist Church described how the condition of the worshippers had changed drastically from when they were slaves, Campbell said. When before they had worn rags and lived in filthy conditions, the freed men and women now flocked to church from their own homes in handsome dress, he said.
Freed slaves who lived on the Sea Islands loved nothing more than to hold weddings, where they could get dressed up and celebrate together, said Ben Williams, chairman of the Mitchelville Preservation Project.
First African Baptist deacon Murray Christopher said being at the location on Beach City Road, where history was forged, made it easy to imagine how his ancestors felt.
"They were newly freed men able to own land -- that had not been their history up to that point," he said. "They believed the promises of the God they were introduced to."
As former slaves moved to other parts of the island, the church moved several times, too. It is now located at the Cross Roads area of the island. Several other churches sprang from First African Baptist, including St. James Baptist, Central Oak Grove Baptist, Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist and the New Church of Christ on Hilton Head Island and First Zion Baptist in Bluffton.
The site where Sunday's ceremony was held will one day preserve the memory of the village and its church in the form of the Mitchelville Freedom Park, Hilton Head Mayor Drew Laughlin promised the crowd.
Joyce Wright, a member of the Mitchelville Preservation Project, said the group will collaborate with First African Baptist on some of the sesquicentennial events that will occur through the year.
But "today is the church's day," she said.