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Vietnam vet is rescuing iconic St. Helena Island praise house where he ‘got saved’

American flags (Tunnel to Towers/Facebook)

James Peter Smalls pushes open the front door of the 125-year-old Mary Jenkins Community Praise House off of Eddings Point Road. Sunlight spills through the door and four small windows, illuminating five wooden benches, a Bible resting on a simple pulpit and a cowbell hanging on a ceiling hook. As a boy, Smalls sang spirituals in this tiny St. Helena Island sanctuary, like “Down by the Riverside.” He recited scripture before stern elders who were quick to correct a mistake. And he remembers hearing that cowbell clang, signaling the faithful to fellowship and worship. Today, Smalls is 76. He’s been through two wars. He walks with a cane. But he still hears a call. The aging warrior with salt-and-pepper hair is on a mission to save the very praise house where he “got saved” when he was 9 years old.

“I do what I gotta do,” says Smalls, “to keep it open.”

Mary Jenkins Praise House was built around 1900, named after a plantation, and hasn’t changed much in the ensuing 124 years. The plain wooden structure with a tin roof and weatherboard walls once served as the spiritual and community center of the Mary Jenkins area of St. Helena Island. Built out of wood and sweat and need, dozens like it once dotted plantations across the island, before and after the end of slavery following the Civil War. Part church, part community center, part courtroom, praise houses, says Small, were a refuge and meant everything to islanders.

But the historic gathering spots are disappearing and Smalls is doing his part to preserve and revive Mary Jenkins, the praise house that his church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, oversees. The iconic structures, he says, tell the story of how Black Americans “came up,” what they did to survive and the struggles they endured to earn the same freedom of religion other early Americans sought in fleeing England that was later guaranteed in the 1st Amendment.

“We didn’t have that,” Smalls says. “We could go and worship, but we had to say what we were told to say. We couldn’t say how we feel. People need to know where we come from.”

In 1932, 25 praise houses were still known to be active on the island, according to the State of South Carolina. Today, the Mary Jenkins Praise House is one of just three still standing. After transportation began to improve on the rural island, the plantation-based praise houses started to dwindle, Smalls said, because it was easier to travel to larger churches located farther away from homes.

To Smalls, a deacon at Ebenezer Baptist, which is six miles away from the praise house, it would be a tragedy to see the modest structures that represent a key era in African American religious and community life disappear. As late as the 1950s, when Smalls was a young man, prayer houses were still “on the go,” Smalls says. There were three praises houses alone along Eddings Point Drive at that time, he says.

The Mary Jenkins Praise House, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, is the last one standing on Eddings Point Road.

Up until recently, prayer services were still being conducted at the Mary Jenkins Praise House but the COVID-19 pandemic brought that to an end. Beginning in April, services will be re-launched monthly, every Sunday evening. Those services will include the singing of the old hymns that Smalls heard as a boy.

Praise houses were typically small, about 14-by-18-feet. It was intentional. White plantation owners worried about large gatherings, figuring they could lead to insurrection. Construction of the modest buildings with the simple architecture continued even after slavery ended in 1865.

At one time, Smalls say, a white man had to be present in the praise houses during worship services but over time “prayer services could be done the way they wanted.”

Historically, a prayer house was a place of worship, Smalls says. A typical service might consist of singing, prayer and perhaps a member’s testimony of a religious experience. They usually ended with a “shout,” an experience in which worshipers, led by the holy ghost, stomped their feet, clapped their hands and sang.

“It was an experience,” says Smalls as he recalls the spirit-filled occurrences.

But the scope of praise houses went beyond the purely religious. Praise houses were also practical. For one, unlike churches, they were located closer to where people lived. That was important because most people were getting to church on foot via dirt roads, says Smalls. And by the time you would get to the church, he says, “you’d be all dirtied down.”

And the buildings became centers for community life and were used, says Smalls, for “just about everything,” from funerals to baptisms.

“The prayer house in this area is more of a community building,” says Smalls. “If you live in the community, you are welcome. Just about every plantation on St. Helena Island had a prayer house.”

It was even a place to make peace. Church deacons selected a committee of people who would work with families to resolve domestic problems, he said. “They tried to handle their problems in the community,” he says.

Smalls served 27 years in the Army and was part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the first major unit of the United States Army to serve in Vietnam. He was there during the Tet Offensive in 1969, one of the largest military campaigns of the war.

“I’ve never seen so many soldiers who knew God,” Small says. “I’ve had some experiences that will be with me the rest of my life.”

He also served during the Persian Gulf War.

Small’s campaign today is raising money he says is needed to keep the praise house standing tall.

He does what he can to maintain the praise house. That has included reinforcing the walls so a hurricane doesn’t blow them down. He also pays a modest electricity bill. But the property around the old building needs cleaning up. A bathroom facility and an air conditioning system also are needed, he adds.

He taps his cane up on the floor — “thump,” “thump,” thump” — as he recalls the sound of the foot-stomping during a shout.

“It was a place of refuge,” Smalls says of praise houses. “It was everything to the community.”


(c) 2024 The Island Packet

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