Freed slaves spent $500 to buy a church in Bluffton 145 years ago. It’s still standing

Jon Black, pastor of Bluffton’s Campbell Chapel AME Church, stands for a portrait at the church built in 1853. As of April 26, 2019, the building is listed on the U.S. National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.
Jon Black, pastor of Bluffton’s Campbell Chapel AME Church, stands for a portrait at the church built in 1853. As of April 26, 2019, the building is listed on the U.S. National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. dmartin@islandpacket.com

Old Town Bluffton is teeming with folklore. Buildings, streets and even trees have stories, handed down from one generation to the next.

Verifying those stories though? That’s much more difficult.

Many official records and deeds that would prove the oral history is accurate were burned during the Civil War, destroyed by storms or otherwise lost forever.

For the oldest church building in Old Town — Campbell Chapel AME on Boundary Street — being lost forever is no longer an option. Earlier this year, it became only the second Old Town building to be added to the National Register of Historic Places.

“When we initially started, there were people who thought the church was already on the register,” said Nathaniel Pringle, a church member and founder of the nonprofit A Call to Action.

It wasn’t. The white board-and-batten church wasn’t even included as a contributing structure in the application for the Bluffton Historic District, said Carolyn Coppola, a historic preservationist and founder of Celebrate Bluffton.

“No one had looked at it seriously as an incredible story that adds to Bluffton’s story,” Coppola said.

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Carolyn Coppola and Nathaniel Pringle spent the last five years leading research into Campbell Chapel AME Church’s history. Submitted

The research process would take a team of historians and church members five years.

“It is a lot of work, but for me, I love doing it,” Coppola said, likening the unfolding of a site’s story to having a child.

“You hear the pulse and feel the heartbeat, and you want to bring it to life,” she said. “You want to tell this unique story.”

Church history

Campbell Chapel’s building dates to 1853, when it was built by a white Methodist congregation. Construction on the landmark Church of the Cross, the only other Old Town building listed on the National Register, started a year later, according to its website.

The building survived the Burning of Bluffton in 1863, and around 1874, in the midst of Reconstruction, nine former slaves purchased it from five white trustees of the Methodist church. The price, Coppola said, was $500.

Finding out about the church’s change of hands inspired a plethora of questions: Where did the money to purchase the building come from? Why did the five trustees sell the building? Who were these nine former slaves?

Pringle said documents show that one of the men had been the slave of one of the white trustees before the war.

“That was the catalyst ... the key, the connection between the two groups of men,” he said.

And Pringle had other connections to make as well, connections of a personal nature. He traced his own family tree back to one of the nine enslaved men.

Campbell Chapel’s pastor, Jon Black, calls the nine men “warriors of faith.”

In the sale of the church building Black sees a story of reconciliation and promise: About a decade after the Emancipation Proclamation, a group of white men had a business relationship with former slaves.

The church’s application to be added to the National Register of Historic Places says many of the men were farmers who, though illiterate, did have bank accounts. Some owned property.

They were Renty Fields, Jacob Chisolm, William Ferguson, Jeffrey Buncomb, William Smith (or Smiley), David Heyward, Christopher Bryan, Theodor Wilson and William Lightburn.

While not much more is known about the men — the “Campbell Nine,” as Black calls them — 20-25 of their descendants attended a presentation about the church’s application for the National Register before the state Department of Archives and History in Columbia.

“To be part of this project, it gives us the opportunity to continue the legacy that these nine men started,” Pringle said.

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The bell that was added to Campbell Chapel AME Church during the Reconstruction Era still rings over the historic church today. Scott Crotzer Photo courtesy Campbell Chapel AME Church

The bell

For Coppola, the Campbell Chapel’s bell is a crucial part of its story.

An intern with Celebrate Bluffton made the difficult climb into the belfry on a hot day and confirmed the bell was there. But his photos didn’t show the bell’s yoke.

So back up he went a second time to photograph the yoke inscription that ultimately would give Coppola her “aha moment.”

Her research would prove fruitful at 2:30 a.m., when she discovered that the bell’s manufacturing information placed it in the period when the freed slaves would have been making the church their own.

“They needed to make it theirs,” Coppola said. “It was a symbol of a new beginning.”

Sunday school

During Campbell Chapel’s early days, its Sunday school was much more than the Bible lessons and crafts typical in today’s Sunday schools.

Attendees were taught to read and write, and as the formerly enslaved population grew in literacy, they became property owners and established a place for themselves in society, Coppola explained.

Through Census data and records from the Southern AME Church conference, Campbell Chapel’s story began to unfold. This role of Sunday schools in reconstruction had not been widely documented before these research efforts.

“We know these Sunday schools taught more in one day than schools in one week,” Coppola said, explaining that a public school system did not exist at that time.

“Sunday schools provided such a basis for hope ... a foundation for people to move forward and plot a realistic future.”

Looking ahead

The building’s future will be a nod to its storied past.

It is currently being leased by an Assemblies of God congregation, Iglesia Torre Fuerte.

Black said Campbell Chapel’s congregation of 300 “very very faithful members” ultimately plans to restore the historic building to the way it was during the Reconstruction period. They would like it to be an interpretive center to preserve and share its history with visitors.

The minister also envisions a meeting place where diverse groups of people can have honest conversations about issues.

“We see ourselves as a major part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor,” he said.

Family is also a key part of the plan, which includes reaching out nationally to groups organizing family reunions and those wishing to have a destination wedding.

The goal is to raise $1.5 million to $2 million to complete the restoration over the next two years, Black said.

“I can’t tell you all that is going to hit like we planned,” he said, “but the seeds for our vision are already here.”

Local impact

Coppola said the building’s story is part of United States history.

As sites in Beaufort, Port Royal and St. Helena Island welcome visitors to the Reconstruction Era National Park, Bluffton has its own site tying it to the era.

“This little place connects us to a larger history,” Coppola said.

Pringle said he thinks there will be no shortage of tourists — and locals — interested.

“I encounter people on the property every day wanting to know more about the history of Bluffton,” Pringle said.

As he gathered information about the building, the work became more of a mission. And he’s not done.

He’d like to find more descendants of the Campbell Nine, using DNA testing to make connections.

“I don’t think the total impact will be realized until the full story is told,” he said, “and that story is still being uncovered.”

Said Coppola: “We’ve given a voice to the silent. ... Finally.”

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Lisa Wilson is a reporter for The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. The 25-year newsroom veteran has worked for papers in Louisiana and Mississippi and is happy to call the Lowcountry home.