My Black Catholic Heritage

There is a community just outside of Walterboro, South Carolina, known informally as “Catholic Hill”, with a remarkable history. Back in 1856, well before Emancipation, a Catholic church building burned down. The white membership disbanded, leaving the parish, for all practical purposes, defunct.

St. James Catholic Church
St. James the Greater

Fast forward to 1897, across the closing decade of the Slavery Era, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction. A vibrant Catholic community of former slaves and their descendants are discovered. They had been worshipping for over 40 years without a priest or any support whatsoever. Now, after 180 years, the church of St. James the Greater is still going strong.

I was not raised a Catholic, though it might be said that Dad was. As far as I can recollect, his upbringing as a Catholic amounted to being told by a priest that he was going to Hell. His mother had been raised in a very strict Catholic tradition in a Nova Scotia village where Gaelic was still spoken. She had rebelled after the priest had reported to her father that she had been seeing a Protestant boy. She married a Lutheran years later, but she still appeared to retain some Catholic allegiances. I’m told that she was excommunicated, but ultimately exculpated by the Church.

When we moved to Walterboro from nearby Ruffin, we rented a house on the edge of a black neighborhood, near St. Joseph’s, a relatively new church that had been founded as an outreach effort by the Diocese and the Trinitarian Order about ten years earlier. St. Joseph’s had a school program, so I naturally attended kindergarten there. I remember walking down the bumpy dirt road to the church with the Owens boy who was my friend at the time. I remember all the great wooden toys they had, and I remember the processions of costumed giants occasionally passing by. Perhaps I had been there for mass as well.

As far as I was concerned, it was just a great place to play. Years later, I was told that I was the only white child there. Until that time, I don’t think I had given any thought to the color of the people there.

Bishop Hallinan at St. Joseph's
The bishop breaks ground at St. Joseph’s.

Unfortunately, St. Joseph’s did not enjoy the longevity exhibited by St. James the Greater. Sometime back in the 1990s, the Trinitarians left town and the Diocese abandoned St. Joseph’s. It seems hard to see it as anything but a lost opportunity for Walterboro and the Diocese to expand on a unique religious heritage.

Ruffin It

Our life of excess and extravagance could not last forever. In the wink of an eye, we packed up and left the Hotel Jericho for a little track-side house in the hamlet of Ruffin, which is little more than a railroad crossing on the Lowcountry Highway.

Railroad tracks in Ruffin, SC

Railroad tracks in Ruffin, SC — Meredith Foss

Our new house did have its luxuries. I remember the day we arrived. My younger brother David and I discovered our new home came with its own playground: an old metal swing set, an old, half-empty bottle of soda complete with an escort of hornets, and a shed in the back.

Every hot, sweaty night, freight trains would thunder by, shaking the house as they passed, and blasting through the cacophony of insect songs.

I remember walking up the tracks with my older brother Al. We would pass the occasional odd shoe, and Al would tell me stories about how people would slip and get trapped under the tracks. Al denies telling me such stories to this day. Perhaps he forgot. I certainly didn’t!

I started kindergarten in Ruffin, and that’s about all. I can’t remember anything about that kindergarten, except for the first teary, terrifying day. We probably didn’t leave Ruffin long after that day. Before long we were following the tracks to Walterboro, where Mom and Dad hoped to make a better living.

© 2006 Dan J. Jensen

Hotel Jericho

Old Jacksonboro Road crosses the Savannah Highway within a half hour of Charleston. The name for this intersection is Jericho. Today it is considered part of the town of Adams Run.

Jericho School Annex for Coloreds

Jericho was once the site of a hotel, a post office, and a store with gas pumps. It all burned down in a couple of fires sometime after we left South Carolina a second time in 1972.

The hotel had three stories, if one counts the spacious attic with dormer windows and bath. It had exterior wooden stairways, which I remembered as fire escapes. Around 1964, it was converted to a boys’ home by the Reconnu family. They operated the boys’ home until about 1968.

The store came equipped with a soda vending machine that would allow a mischievous boy to yank a bottle out without paying. The trick to it was not to brag about getting a free soda to one’s mom.

Mom and Dad looked at the hotel in mid-1970, and saw a place that could be perfect as a home for seven and a dog, a chiropractic office, and a Baha’i center. I must confess that if I were driving down the Savannah Highway and I saw a FOR SALE sign posted in front of that old hotel, I would have been sorely tempted to stop for a look-see.

Among my favorite memories of Jericho was the the trash pile in the back, all blackened from the last fire and wet from the last rain. I can still smell the aroma of molten plastics, rotting food, and rusted scrap metal. I also remember when a crab, recently taken from the ocean, got a hold of a cat’s tail. I’m not sure how that happened, but now I suspect it probably got some help.

Across the highway, there was a hotel of a different kind that was even more noteworthy: a maze of tunnels that some neighbor kids had dug out. My memory of that system of tunnels has endured in my mind as one of the great achievements of kidkind.

It turned out the Hotel Jericho had too many hidden maintenance and repair issues, and it wasn’t easy to unload. Mom and Dad weren’t able to sell it for a couple years after we left Jericho.

© 2006 Dan J. Jensen

Just call me Bubba

Last weekend, we finally cracked and gave Bubba Gump a try. I can’t think of a more cynical Hollywood spinoff, but we were hungry, and the Aquarium restaurant was stuffed. Bubba’s food was not bad. The kids actually ate—there’s something to blog home about.

What struck me was one of the myriad bits of nostalgia: a map of the Beaufort, South Carolina area.

praise house

When I was a little boy, my family lived in five South Carolina towns in the space of less than three years. The first one was Frogmore, near Beaufort. You are unlikely to find it on a map, because they renamed it to Saint Helena, after the island that the village rests upon. Kind of a shame. At least you can still find Frogmore stew.

Source: the North by South Project

The town has a long, peculiar history. This was the place where Laura Matilda Towne and Ellen Murray moved to serve the former slave population and establish the Penn School in 1862.

By the time we arrived, 104 years later, not much had changed. We had modern conveniences like plumbing, though ours was backed up into the bath tub when we arrived. The place was still isolated. Blonde hair was still a novelty among the island children.

I was of course too young to remember our residence in Frogmore. According to Mom, my life there consisted mostly of being bitten by sand flies in my crib. There were also occasional walks outside with my oldest sister Duska, and I’m guessing I was brought along for some of the proselytizing.

It may be rightly said that Frogmore was the Geneva of the South in 1966, though I’m told that Joe Frazier, himself a Beaufort native, called it the slum of the South. It was in Frogmore, at Penn Center, that Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, Jessie Jackson, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference met every year. Locals, including our family, were invited to attend the November 1966 conference, during which, I’m told, much debate took place regarding the pros and cons of nonviolent activism. I have read that it was at this conference that King expanded his vision from civil rights to human rights.

Laura Towne and Ellen Murray spent the remainder of their lives serving the islanders—a combined 85 years. We couldn’t hold on quite that long, and returned to California in early 1967, though we did visit Frogmore when we returned to South Carolina several years later. I remember spirituals being sung in a hall there. I remember one particular Baha’i song called “We Are Soldiers In God’s Army”. I haven’t heard it in a long time. I can tell you unequivocally that it most certainly rocked!

I also remember my brother Al catching a hammerhead shark and a ray off the pier. That could be a manufactured memory, but I remember it vividly.

Holy Jumpstart, Batman!

Dateline 1959. It was a trying time for Baha’is, a highly-centralized religious group whose leader had recently died intestate. That means dying without a will; not dying emasculated.

For our family, though, it was a new beginning. Love conquers all.

Unless I am mistaken, Mom and Dad met at a big city Baha’i fireside, which is a kind of proselytizing event, at which Dad was a speaker. In the wink of an eye, Mom became a Baha’i and they were married at the Los Angeles Baha’i Center. They got off to a quick start, adding a daughter to Mom’s two kids from her previous marriage. Perhaps Mom’s poor health caused them to wait awhile before making any more little Baha’is. Aside from that, it seems they had a good thing going. Business was good, and there were plenty of distinguished big city Baha’is to hobnob with.

I was born a few years later, at the Inglewood hospital where Grandpa Jensen worked as a gardener. He had been suffering from diabetes for the better part of four decades, but he was still working in his lifetime occupation. I have no memories of him as an independent man, as he suffered from a stroke soon after we moved away.

I don’t know what inspired Mom and Dad to pack up the kids and move to the Deep South. Perhaps it was Faizi or Sears or Dunbar, Baha’i leaders whom they seemed to get a lot of guidance from. Perhaps it was my angelic, newborn gaze that gave them a new sense of purpose! Perhaps the Watts Riots had convinced them that there was great untapped spiritual potential in the oppressed Black American community. Whatever the reasons, we were in South Carolina by the time I was learning to walk.

As far as Mom and Dad were concerned, we were moving to stay. As it turned out, we would move ten times more within the next eight years. We were stepping into a whole new way of living.