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Reunion reunites black and white

A quiet, contemporary church with the feel of a small abbey set on a rural hill is bringing together divided spirits of the past and molding them into a deep bond of love.

There was a tight embrace when African-American Catherine Graham and Euro-American Cherie Gilreath McConnell arrived at the Jackson Grove United Methodist Church, near Travelers Rest, to share their stories.

Graham is a descendant of Ace Gilreath, born in 1844 to son of Matilda Gilreath who was Hardy Jones Gilreath’s slave. Hardy Jones Gilreath was the great, great-grandfather of McConnell. Ancestors of both are buried at Jackson Grove.

In 1972, members of Jackson Grove, once a diverse church and now all white, marked off grave sites of former slaves and placed three markers in the cemetery to honor their lives and membership in the antebellum church. One, according to a church history, contains the resting place of Matilda Gilreath, Jim McCreary, Caleb G. Poole, Kathrane (?) G. White; another of 16 graves include the remains of Mary and Pink Austin; a third is said to be where slaves of C. S. Bradley are buried.

“We have a common heritage. We have a tie,” McConnell said.

This bond was cemented as a result of a reunion.

One of Matilda Gilreath’s sons had gone to Arkansas, as did many freedmen after the Civil War. Other descendants were in Washington, D.C. Once the different descendants got in touch in the 1980s, they started having family reunions – in Washington one year, in the West another and the third year the South Carolina relatives would do something close to home. A cousin asked Graham, now a Greenville resident and member of John Wesley UMC, what they might do in 2009.

The thought came to her, “Why don’t you go back to your roots?” and she told her sister, “Let’s go to Jackson Grove.”

She met with Winnie Gilreath, a cousin of McConnell, on Mother’s Day “As soon as I told her who I was, I never felt more welcome,” Graham said. “Most everything I knew, she knew.”

The church was instantly warm to the idea of a reunion at the church, its pastor, John Rush, said.

A quiet, contemporary church with the feel of a small abbey set on a rural hill is bringing together divided spirits of the past and molding them into a deep bond of love.

There was a tight embrace when African-American Catherine Graham and Euro-American Cherie Gilreath McConnell arrived at the Jackson Grove United Methodist Church, near Travelers Rest, to share their stories.

Graham is a descendant of Ace Gilreath, born in 1844 to son of Matilda Gilreath who was Hardy Jones Gilreath’s slave. Hardy Jones Gilreath was the great, great-grandfather of McConnell. Ancestors of both are buried at Jackson Grove.

Members of Jackson Grove were invited to a meal at the park on a Saturday in July. The next day the African-American Gilreaths joined in worship at Jackson Grove and that was followed by another meal and time of fellowship. “It turned out to be a big gala,” McConnell said. They were so gracious. They welcomed us in. We felt a bond.

“This was our family. Everybody knew Ace Gilreath. My grandfather said he learned a whole lot more about farming from Ace Gilreath than from his two sons he sent to Clemson.

In her remarks at the church service, Graham quoted James Baldwin: “Know from whence you came, because if you know from whence you came, there is no limit to where you can go.” From our ancestors we learned to love the Lord …” Graham said.

Rush’s sermon had to be sensitive to the issues of the past and yet focus on the importance of “the decisions we make today.” Worshipping together brought “a holy moment,” Rush said.

District Superintendent Charles Johnson and his wife Deloris were there to celebrate the occasion. “It was great to see that people from the same community could get together and worship the way they did,” Johnson said, adding he didn’t know of any other event like it.

For Graham who had cared for her late brother in his illness last year, the reunion brought healing. Her brother “would have loved it,” she said.

Graham sent pictures of the family reunion to her son in California. “But who are all these white people?” he asked in his return mail.

History unburied – Jackson Grove UMC

Jackson Grove United Methodist Church off Sandy Flat Road near Travelers Rest, like most churches, has a published history.  It was the Rev. Mike Alexander, the church’s pastor in the early ‘80s, who typed the manuscript, compiled by Lou Alice Flynn Turner with Doris Coleman Gilreath.

The late Leonardo Andrea, a genealogist whose ancestor couldn’t be buried at several churches because he was Roman Catholic but was interred at Jackson Grove, measured the cemetery and left a plat of the old cemetery for its history book. The plat is of interest for what happened at Jackson Grove UMC this year.

Chartered by the state as Jackson Grove Methodist Episcopal Church Dec. 17, 1831, the year Andrew Jackson was president and the year before nullification strife began talk of secession.

Several Baptist churches in the upper corner of the Greenville District, but no Methodists, although Bishop Francis Asbury was well received when he visited there in 1803.  Jackson Grove Methodist Episcopal Church was conceived at a camp meeting in September1831 and formed as a part of the Asheville District in the Holston Conference. After the crops were in, the camp meeting included the following rules for those camping in covered wagons, tents or make-shift huts:

“No Cider, Beer Ale, or other merchandise except religious books will be permitted … a fine not exceeding Ten Dollars  ($192.25 in 2007 dollars).” Retailing or giving away “spirituous liquers,” (sic) intoxication or swearing also made participants subject to fines.

“After the hour of night when public worship is dismissed from the state, during camp meeting, all Negro servants shall desist from their public devotions, retiring to their owner’s tents. They, being found gallivanting and reconnoitering the encampment, will subject themselves to corrections by the Trustees.”

By January 1832, the leaders had paid $100 for five and one-third acres for a church.

Early reports say Jackson Grove had 277 whites and 44 blacks. In 1844, the Greenville and Pickens districts were transferred to the Cokesbury District of the S.C. conference. Of the four circuits in Cokesbury that year, membership was 843 whites and 179 blacks. Along with other Methodist churches in the South, Jackson Grove Methodist Episcopal Church added “South” to its name in May 1845. In 1849, a deacon and three elders cared for 918 whites and 140 blacks. The church became a part of the Spartanburg District until 1865.

Most of the white members listed themselves as farmers. Hardy Jones Gilreath, who ran a store, was among them. He first owned one slave, then up to about a dozen, according to census records. His desce
ndants believe it might have been one family that grew.

When the nullification controversy came along in 1835 and Waddy Thompson ordered a five-day encampment of the First Brigade of the S.C. Militia, officers in the Greenville regiments refused to go. Officers belonging to Jackson Grove were court-martialed for remaining true to the Union. When South Carolina seceded, Unionists in the area asked Benjamin Perry, a respected leader and editor what they should do. His reply is best expressed by his often-quoted statement, “They are now all going to the devil, and I shall go with them,” He would go with his “country,” South Carolina, “although in a wrong cause.”

Many names of the church family came to be names in its cemetery during the Civil War and its aftermath. When the South failed to ratify the 14th Amendment, federal troops to enforced the rights of freedom for former slaves. Greenville was said to be among the most destitute areas. Pastors received little more than half what the church was assessed for salaries.

At the end of Reconstruction, the people who had served as slaves moved from Jackson Grove to their own church down the road, St. Luke Methodist Church, with the help of former masters and other white friends purchasing the land for the new church. But their families were buried in the cemetery at Jackson Grove.

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