Unitarian Church builds memorial to honor enslaved workers who built it
Folks who fill the historic pews of the Unitarian Church in Charleston have long advocated for social justice and equality.
If you go
WHAT: Blessing of Memorial to Enslaved Workers
WHEN: 11 a.m. today
WHERE: Unitarian Church, 4 Archdale St., downtown Charleston
MORE INFO: www.charleston uu.org or call 723-4617.
Yet, lingering in the church’s history was a possibility, long suspected but never proven, that enslaved workers built its walls and made the bricks comprising them.
“All of Charleston is built, at least in part, by enslaved workers,” says Paul Garbarini, a local historian and member of the Archdale Street church.
But then several years ago Garbarini discovered ledgers showing precisely who toiled on the bricks and walls of the stately church, built from 1774 to 1787. They were slaveholders.
“For the first time, we had a paper trail,” church Pastor Danny Reed says.
How should a church, the second-oldest in downtown Charleston and committed to equality, respond?
An idea took hold recently when the National Historic Landmark church began work to add a handicap-accessible ramp inside its sanctuary. The project required removing original Colonial-era bricks from an interior wall.
Garbarini studied the bricks, intrigued by the stories behind them, and asked construction crews to save as many as possible.
Some crumbled into the dust of history. But about 100 bricks were salvaged.
Garbarini, who runs the tour company Uniquely Charleston Tours, suggested building a monument on church grounds to honor the enslaved workers whose hands might have touched those very bricks.
He tapped Rodney Prioleau, master mason at Fort Sumter National Monument to use Colonial techniques to build it.
During the Unitarian Church’s 11 a.m. service today, members will bless the new 3-foot high monument that was built with the surviving bricks and $4,300 in church members’ donations.
The Memorial to Enslaved Workers sits near the sanctuary entrance, tucked back just enough to be ensconced in the naturalized gardens and winding paths that characterize the Unitarian Church’s grounds.
The monument features a wrought iron sankofa, a symbol originating from Ghana that refers to the importance of learning from history to best move forward. It was crafted by Carlton Simmons, nephew of renowned blacksmith Philip Simmons. Most slaves shipped into South Carolina came from West Africa.
An inscription on the memorial’s base reads: “In memory of those enslaved workers who made these bricks and helped build our church.”
The monument’s top is layered with oyster shells in keeping with the Gullah tradition of marking graves with them.
The monument intends to offer a humble symbol of contrition as the church continues advocating for equality and welcoming, Reed says.
“We need to acknowledge this part of our story,” Reed says.
Guests at today’s event, which is open to the public, will include storyteller Minerva Brown King and teaching artist Ramona La Roche, who, in keeping with African tradition, will bless the monument with words and the pouring of libations.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.