GREENE COLUMN: Lowcountry praise houses also places of teaching
Praise houses similar to the one being renovated on Dereef Park downtown were at one time the center of the black community, especially on the rural islands.
On Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday nights, just about everyone would go to these tiny buildings to pray, sing, shout and testify what God had done for them.
On Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, people would be there all night.
The buildings were nothing fancy — mainly small, one-room wooden structures with makeshift desks and benches. A lantern hung on the wall. A wood stove kept everyone warm in the winter and open windows let the breeze in during the summer.
There was no music, no drums. And of course, no indoor plumbing.
A living history book
Christina D. Johnson, 92, of Wadmalaw Island has fond memories of the praise houses.
She recalls several meeting houses, as they were called on the island. According to the S.C. Department of Archives and History, many of these praise houses were built during slavery and afterward and were named after the community, the former plantation or plantation owner.
On Wadmalaw, they were referred to by numbers.
Johnson remembers Meeting House No. 1, 7, 9, 12 and 16, to name a few. There was one near every plantation on the island, she said.
In his self-published book, “Wadmalaw Island, Leaving Traditional Roots Behind,” Allen Mitchell said No. 9 was the oldest praise house on the island, circa 1890.
Johnson, who could well be considered a living island history book, recalls going to No. 16 on Roseville Road with her mother.
“Those were good times,” she said. “Those old people did a lot of teaching in those meetin' houses.”
Sadly, most of the houses are gone now, lost to the elements. Across the Lowcountry, the remaining ones are mostly in poor condition, but some residents are working to save them.
With an abundance of churches, no one uses the praise houses much anymore.
For Johnson, the memories remain.
Shouting and clapping
In the meeting houses, every child was taught how to sing, clap, shout and pray, said Johnson, a lifelong island resident and widowed mother of 14 children.
The rhythmic movements of shouting start with a call and response song, hand clapping and feet stomping, all in a slow motion that gradually builds to a high pitch.
Johnson, a member of New Bethlehem Baptist Church since 1932, said she and others had to learn to raise a hymn in short, long and common meters.
If you were not good at shouting or clapping, they might laugh at you, she said, but in the end, they made sure you got it right, she said with a youthful giggle.
The meeting houses provided for lots of fellowship, and it was a time of sharing, Johnson said.
If someone killed a hog, you could count on getting some of the meat. If someone went fishing, you got fish. The same happened during planting season. “It was a blessing,” she said.
People also went out of their way to care for one another.
When someone became gravely ill, the meetings moved to that person's home until they passed away; then the singing and praising went back to the meeting house.
The “old people” were strict, Johnson remembered. “We had to go to the meetin' house.”
If you missed a meeting or two, you'd better have a good reason, whether it was the truth or not, Johnson said, chuckling.
The young people today don't get the same kind of teaching, she said. The “old people” did not have much education, “but you learned so much from them,” Johnson said.
“I miss those times. It was good times.”
No one dressed up
Wadmalaw residents went to the praise houses until the late '60s and early '70s, Johnson recalls.
Worship would start about 7 p.m. after everyone came off the farm and had fixed supper.
No one was dressed up. Women wore skirts and blouses and hats or scarves — “there was no weave in the hair around there,” said Johnson, with her great sense of humor. Women often wore large aprons, too. Men wore shirts and pants.
It was a joyful time, singing and praising the Lord all night long, Johnson said. “And we never got tired.”
During Spoleto Festival USA, Alphonso Brown, a musician and owner of Gullah Tours, produces Camp Meeting, a re-enactment of the praise house experience.
It's a moving and inspiring moment of a time gone by.
It's a must-see.
Reach Assistant Features Editor Shirley A. Greene at 937-5555, or sgreene@post andcourier.com.