St. Paul Camp Ground (2007)

About the Film

About twenty years after the end of slavery, four leaders of the St. Paul community bought land for this campground near Harleyville, forty-five miles northwest of Charleston. Courthouse records show that they paid $210 for 113 acres. The campground has a central tabernacle encircled beneath tall pine trees by more than fifty “tents” for the member families. Their annual meeting in the second week of October opens with the campers marching the grounds singing “It's Camp Meeting Time on the Hill." Most worshipers belong to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the camp meeting is an important part of their spiritual tradition, but of their historical, cultural, and social heritage as well.

African-American camp meetings in the Carolinas grew out of ones in the antebellum era, when black and white people would travel great distances to attend week-long religious gatherings led by "circuit" preachers. Enslaved people worshiped with whites or had camps on the back side of the white campgrounds. For African-Americans, it was one of the few places they could meet and enjoy some sense of freedom. When they were able after the Civil War to establish their own camp grounds, they continued to meet annually during harvest time (July through October). The camp meetings served to maintain their sense of cultural history and community identity and to strengthen family relationships. The set-up of the tents remained the same, placed in a circle around a tabernacle or brush arbor, so that the religious nature of the camp meeting remained the focus. Their camps were now overseen by their own trustees. People continued to bring everything they needed, from tents to chickens. And the style of preaching and music was now their own. Over time, canvas tents were replaced by wooden ones that have porches and plank benches and can be handed down to the next generations of the member families. People still travel many miles to the camps each year so that they can be with family members and friends they haven't seen in a long time. And often, there will be four or five generations of family members present.


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