Historic black church move under way in Charleston’s Dereef Park
A church that is seen as a vital part of African-American history on the Charleston peninsula is getting a new home and a makeover, which has some neighborhood residents upset.
Praise houses were established by slaves who used small frame houses or other buildings as places to meet and worship. After they became freedmen, they built praise houses on or near the old plantation, in most instances calling their community by the name of the former plantation or plantation owner. A typical service might consist of singing, prayer and perhaps a member’s testimony of a religious experience.
Source: S.C. Department of Archives and History
Workers and heavy equipment were on site Tuesday making preparations to relocate the crumbling church in Dereef Park.
“I hate to see the church moved from out of the spot it was in. I don’t want to see it, but that’s the way development goes,” said Davis Rivers, 55, who lives in an apartment building next to the park.
Although it will be in a different spot, the building will be moved only about 500 feet closer to Morris Street. The restored United Missionary Chapel will be turned over to the city to become a civic building in a .35-acre park.
The chapel project is part of a developer’s plan for 33 luxury homes on the remaining 1.75-acres of Dereef Park.
“The developer renovates the church and the city owns it,” said Tim Keane, the city’s director of planning, preservation and sustainability. “That building is close to being gone. As a result of this plan, the building will be saved.”
Keane said the restoration of the church will bring back its true historic nature.
“We renovate the church at our expense and deed it back to the city,” said Christoper Phillips of the development group Gathering at Morris Square LLC.
He said the church move will be completed sometime this week.
Dereef Park, formerly owned by the city, is the last green space in the Cannonborough/Elliottborough neighborhood, according to the Preservation Society of Charleston.
“It represents one of the last vestiges of black achievement on the peninsula,” the society website states.
The area around the park was home to the Brooks Motel, a place where civil rights leaders stayed when visiting here, according to the society.
Rivers said he was born in the neighborhood and has lived there all his life.
He described growing up in a historically black neighborhood of stores, schools and offices where everyone knew their neighbors and people looked out for one another. Now people rarely speak to him on the street, he said.
The S.C. Department of Archives and History has estimated that the church was built between 1905 and 1915. However, city records indicate it was constructed in the early 1940s.
Local historians describe the chapel as a nondenominational “urban praise house” where participants went for worship, social events and civil rights gatherings.
Zoning and plans for the Dereef Park development were approved more than 10 years ago. The original plan for 41 homes at the park was scaled-back, Keane said.
David Templeton, who lives behind the park, said the project will drastically change the community. He worried that the new housing in Dereef Park will draw more late-night partiers and loud music to the area.
“More of the same, even worse,” he said.
Another neighborhood resident, Bill Bowick, said he considered the park project a desecration of African-American history. Phillips said he strongly disagreed, describing that assessment of his project as irresponsible. He noted that under an earlier version of the project the church would have been moved, renovated and sold as a residence.
Bowick said the church should be left in its current location. The developer has a right to use the property, Bowick said, but he would like to see more open space in the plans to develop the park.
The park is named for the Dereef brothers, who are described as highly successful black businessmen during the early to mid-19th century. One of the brothers, Richard Dereef, served on City Council starting in 1868, according to the Preservation Society.