Community groups improve slave cemetery at Soapstone Church

Courtesy photo
Three local community groups recently joined forces to spruce up the slave cemetery at Soapstone Church near Pumpkintown.

By Perry Gravely
Special to The Courier

PICKENS — In a time when diversity provides unwarranted tension, three diverse community groups recently came together to spruce up the slave cemetery at Soapstone Church near Pumpkintown.

Members of Boy Scout Troop 51, Greenville Seminoles Youth Association and Arise from the Ashes of Pickens joined hands on a Saturday morning to work at the cemetery and show community spirit and respect for those resting in the unmarked graves.

Before starting work, the group gathered in a circle of unity, said a prayer and sang a spiritual appropriate for those who were being honored. Then the group went to work for several hours pulling weeds, cleaning off the grave sites, clearing the nature trail, installing a meditation bench, spreading mulch around the entrance and placing more than 100 American flags on the grave sites.

Mabel Clark, the primary organizer of the event, with the leadership of Troop 51, was thrilled with the participation and the statement made by the groups working together.

“My heart was so touched seeing the excitement on each of their faces, like they were there for the slaves,” Clark said. “Just to see a group come together for this project and how they worked together was wonderful. They seemed so happy doing it, and I was really inspired by them.

“The timing was so appropriate, because it tied into the commemoration of 9/11 as well.”

Soapstone Baptist Church, which manages the cemetery, is one of the oldest African-American churches in the Upstate. The church and community were founded just after the Civil War by freed slaves and originally called “Little Liberia.” The original church was constructed in 1899 and, according to a history prepared by Dennis Chastain, was burned during the racial strife in 1966 and rebuilt the following year. Located next to the current church is a one-room school that is believed to be one of the first African-American schools in this area. Through the efforts of Clark, the history and property have been preserved.

“This was fun. It was interesting and historic, and I had never seen a slave graveyard before,” said Jayden Foster, a sixth-grader from Tanglewood Middle School and a member of the Greenville Seminoles.

“It seemed very patriotic to do this project,” said Jacob Santeler, a sixth-grader at Pickens Middle School and a member of Scout Troop 51. “It was a good time and shows a lot of respect for the slaves buried here, and it helped out the church.”

Even though from different backgrounds, the goals of the groups are very similar in many respects and an important focus centers around improving the lives of the youth in local communities.

One of the groups participating, Greenville Seminoles Youth Association, was founded by Jimmy Green and provides a positive alternative for at-risk youths between the ages of 6-13 from inner-city communities in Greenville.

“I had an opportunity to play sports growing up, but after I got out, they discontinued these sports for the inner-city kids,” Green said, explaining why he started the program 42 years ago. “I wanted to give these kids a chance to play sports, but they could only play if they kept up good grades.”

In addition to organized football, baseball and basketball teams, the program provides mentoring and tutoring for more than 140 youths. Green has served as a coach, mentor, tutor, sports commissioner and a positive role model for thousands of youth from inner-city Greenville.

When asked about his thoughts on the Greenville Youth program, Terry Sullivan, a seventh-grader at Berea Middle School, said “it is a hard-working team. We like to work and joke a lot. This shows me leadership, and this project at the cemetery makes you feel good inside.”

Another group assisting with the project was Arise from the Ashes (AFTA), which according to its founder and president Betty Robinson, is a “community revitalization program. Providing hope, inspiring people and working with our youth.”

AFTA also focuses on mentoring youth and providing activities through a theater program and youth volunteer opportunities in the Pickens community. AFTA has scheduled a similar project to clean up the cemeteries at Cold Springs Baptist Church and Secona Baptist Church on Oct. 29, and the public is invited to assist.

The final group, Boy Scout Troop 51, located in Pickens, is a program for boys 11-17 and teaches youth leadership and life skills through outdoor activities and community projects. Troop 51 recently celebrated its 75th anniversary and meets weekly at its scout hut on Black Snake Road in Pickens. The troop participates in at least one adventure each month and includes camping, hiking, backpacking, cycling and community projects.