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Levi Jordan

Ken Brown Interview

On the Praise House/Church

This part of the interview mentions how a fireplace was moved inside this area of the structure described here. We will include a map showing this in the future. Go to Site Maps for a map of the quarters area that shows where this cabin area was.

For a paper that Kris Brown and Ken Brown wrote on this topic, go to their paper, delivered to the Society for Historical Archaeology in January of 1997.

Picture of a cross that was found in what Ken and Kris Brown refer to as the "Praise House/Church" area.

Questions or Comments?
Please let us know!


KEN: The praise house/church is where we found our second intentional deposit of ash and broken household debris. At one point in the history of the quarters they relocated the fireplace in that cabin. Extending out from it approximately a foot or so (all the way around and in a hole dug for it in the ground) is ash and household debris. We do not have that in any of the other fireplaces. This was an intentional deposit in a prepared kind of receptacle, if you can call a hole in the ground a receptacle.

What is interesting to me about that is some of the stuff that Patricia Guthrie [need citation for bibliography] has on Gullah communities. According to her [ethnographic] study, what constitutes a household isn’t that you are married and have kids – it's that you have a stove. That you have a place to cook. That is the central location for what's considered a family. If you look at the praise houses among the Gullah, they operate as not only places for religious service, but as centers of community solidarity and community politics as well – and these communities are not of just individuals. They are of households. They are sets of households, and it may be that they are commemorating membership within THIS praise house on the basis of households, literally depositing some of their generally thrown away material – but it’s a very symbolic deposit as members of the community.

Also, since we are talking about communities, I do object to some people's characterization of our research as somehow showing that the community at the Jordan plantation was free of strife – that we are saying that they were really friendly and they got along well.[see Maria Franklin's comments in that regard]. That is NOT what we are saying. A community of people is a community of people. And commemorating a place to go to solve political problems doesn’t say a community is strifeless. It says they are creating mechanisms to deal with strife.

CAROL: Those are not mutually exclusive activities. You can fight with somebody and still want to be a part of their family.

KEN: They are creating a mechanism within the community in order to achieve a sense of justice. The justice that they got outside was not the same thing.

CAROL: Do you think that these deposits were happening, generally speaking, in the ‘70’s?

KEN: No, I personally believe, based on what I have seen in the deposits below the so-called praise house – well, I believe that if that was a praise house, it operated as a praise house sometime early in the use of the quarters. So before the 70's, and even before the 60's. Now, Block One, which is where it is, was the last block of quarters built. It was built OVER what had been the brick kiln. It was built on the same floor plan as blocks three and four. So all in all I think that this argues for it being the last block constructed – but when that occurred is anybody’s guess. If you look at the census stuff, Jordan very quickly acquires the 140-odd slaves that made up the slave community very shortly after 1850.

CAROL: According to Sallie [the person who wrote the diary], he was buying way more than he needed.

[we will, someday, insert that section of the diary here]

KEN: Right. Well, that’s probably true – but in any event, he’s got them. My guess is the praise house is something that happened very early. I think it was then converted into the initial, sort of, "well, this is a good place to meet" for what became Grace Methodist Church. Grace Methodist Church in its initial inception, I think, was a plantation church. [see the history of Grace Methodist Church, which describes its founding at the Jordan Plantation]. That community’s church. Others may have been involved in it, but that’s because they were previous members of the community; therefore, previous members or potentially previous members of the praise house. It just continues. But as more and more people are moving away, and as the Methodists begin to really infiltrate the area, community churches move out of the community into the more central location which is where Grace is now.

CAROL: So, what’s happening there is probably going on concurrently as what was going on in the curer’s cabin?

KEN: Yes. And she (if it was a she) was probably part of that church.

CAROL: Part of the membership of that praise house, or that church, or whatever?

KEN: Yes. The spirituality involved – doesn't necessarily conflict. When I talk about the curer/midwife also being a member of the praise house/church, I want to suggest the idea that they were both there – Christianity AND African-derived healing practices. Christianity does not preclude having a mid-wife, and it does not preclude the ceremonies attendant to being a mid-wife. Now one could argue that the historic records suggest – especially with the Gullah – that once they became converted to Christianity, that people didn’t go to conjurers anymore.

CAROL: But what about that bowl in the museum of Rio de Janeiro that’s got the cross on it?

KEN: Exactly. That cross on that bowl, surrounded by African religious symbols, suggests that somebody felt they were controlling the cross; and, therefore, Christianity. They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive sorts of belief – at least, I don't think, they were then. They deal with very different things. In one case, one deals with your perceptions of how you get sick, with how you get well or how you get lucky or how you can control the forces outside of you in a very direct fashion. Christianity doesn’t talk that much about getting sick, or about getting well. It talks about something very different – so I just don't think they’re mutually exclusive. I think in the Jordan case (at least archaeologically) we have evidence that they did, in fact, co-occur on a very important basis for a long time. I suspect we will find similar kinds of things at the Frogmore Plantation. That’s one of the reasons that I want to do it. The Gullah area. I really kind of like to think that the property was owned by William J. Grayson.


KEN: Well, because of his long poem, "The Hireling and The Slave." In this poem he talks about how important it is to the slaves to be Christians. Well, part of Gullah culture – at least after the war and from 1845 onwards, according to Creel's book (46), are Praise Houses. Well, Grayson owned the Frogmore plantation, and he felt his slaves should be Christianized. I suspect the Praise House was a pretty early adaptation at Frogmore. If we find it, we will be able to get the comparative kinds of information that will let us answer the question – is what we have at the Jordan Plantation a church, in the Western Christian sense, or is it a praise house?

And even though we call the space at the Jordan place a church/Praise House, a church really isn’t a praise house. A praise house would probably have been far more important to the African-American community than a church would have been, because they (the African Americans) controlled it completely.

CAROL: But then gradually it changed into the church?

KEN: Yes, but even in Brazoria, what did it change into? It changed into a very focused community-based church. For example, how far does Julia drive to go to the same church she’s always gone to? [Julia Mack, who now lives during the week and teaches in Galveston, goes home to Brazoria every weekend and goes to her regular church].

CAROL: In fact, Julia and I recently talked a little bit about the whole notion of "descendants". Julia absolutely agreed that the whole idea of identifying people based on whether or not their ancestors lived on one individual plantation was ridiculous – it was certainly something that she doesn't find very meaningful. Her church is the center of how she defines her community, and the other churches in the area are just as strong. And most of them started right after the civil war.

KEN: That’s right. And that praise house was a very important aspect of the community, but it was different from a church. Churches, at least at first, were built by white people, and were attended by white people, with blacks allowed in the gallery or outside. They were totally run by white people. The praise house was for blacks, by blacks, et cetera, et cetera. It was a very different phenomenon – and I think that’s one of the reasons the [Martin] boys broke the community up in the early 1890's. [see the history of the plantation written by Ken Brown, and Mary Barnes paper for more information] Because the tenant community was a united front of 100-plus people who could be against them if they wanted to be. I don’t think the boys liked that much.

CAROL: And most of the churches had original founding members (from 1868 onwards) from several plantation communities. I still think it would be interesting to look at those five or six churches in the area – to look at their founding memberships – and to look at what plantations those people came from. I think we’ve got a web of support flowing between different plantation communities and different churches that was not accidental.

KEN: When they start, if you look at the list for Grace, it was predominately Jordan people. [see list of names on cornerstone on Grace Methodist Church History, and the list of the names of the people who lived on the plantation].

CAROL: But there are also Jordan people at the other churches.

KEN: That's part of what needs to be looked at in terms of where the Jordan descendants went and what churches they were associated with…I really think that the communities kept getting redefined. The Jordan community living in the quarters (unlike some communities at other plantations) continued in existence for awhile. So, I suspect, did the community at the plantation that James McNeill took over from the Mims family. A lot of the people stayed pretty close by. I think James McNeill had a – not so much as Calvin [McNeill] – but I think James had a different relationship with those individuals than other people did – certainly different from the Martins.

CAROL: Well, there are some interesting relationships – even though Calvin McNeill seems to have been active in some white supremacist activities [as a founder of the White Taxpayers Union], he and Jerry Johnson, by all accounts, were friends. Cassie Johnson wrote a story about the relationship for a Black History Month event, and it was mentioned in the Creighton book (20). In one of the family account books there’s a whole page on Jerry Johnson’s dogs’ pedigrees. Apparently they used to go talking about dogs and guns and…

KEN: …and hunting. The whole thing.

CAROL: Jerry Johnson’s father was Dimi Doo [Dern] Johnson, who landed at Slave’s Landing, and came in from Africa.

KEN: I think some of our really good records on what Jordan was doing are lost in Havana – wherever the archives are in Havana. I think Jordan was importing Africans, probably through Cuba, and Cubans. I think that’s why he owned that schooner of his. That boat clearly could go long distances at sea, if the records that Ginny [Raska] has are right. There is a mention of a sighting of it running the blockade off the coast of Texas in 1860-something, and two weeks later it ran the blockade off of Belize with loads of cotton. It made it through two blockades and a lot of open water.


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