This abandoned church, located less than two miles west of the near-vacant town of Lone Star, stands shrouded in mystery and speaks to the difficulty many rural Southerners face when trying to identify their roots.
Overview of Mount Nebo Church and School
Mount Nebo was organized in 1908 by the Reverend William L. C. Riley. An African-American, Riley first graduated from South Carolina State College (now University) in Orangeburg and then went on to earn two diplomas from Lincoln University, an historically black college and seminary in Pennsylvania.
As near as we can tell, Riley moved to Lone Star to teach school in the early twentieth century, and upon his arrival, noticed the absence of a church for local residents. With the assistance of another black Presbyterian minister, a man named Uggams (likely Coyden Harold Uggams of Charleston), Riley succeeded in establishing both a school and a church.
The building shown here is thought to be the second church to house Mount Nebo’s congregation in rural Calhoun County. Documented in the South Carolina Historical Record Survey (a function of the Works Progress Administration), it was under construction on or near June 15, 1939.
Little information exists about Mount Nebo’s original church, except that it was built in 1908 on land owned by Riley along River Road, was valued at $1000, did not have a cemetery, and featured a large stand-alone bell tower “by the church.” The survey also gives the then-extant (original) building’s dimensions as 40′ by 40′ and notes that the interior was divided with half being a church and half being a junior high school, “with seating capacity of church being 150.”
The present church was also built on land owned by the Reverend Riley – two acres – and its value was recorded, in 1939, as $1700. Describing it as as a “square frame building with a hipped roof[,] a belfry on 1 corner[, and a] seating capacity [of] 300,” the survey does not mention how the space was allocated between church and school.
Riley served dual roles as pastor and teacher, and the school was initially supported by the Board of Missions for Freedmen, an entity organized within the Presbyterian Church at the end of the Civil War to educate and train former slaves. At some point, the board ceased its support, possibly because it was assimilated by other branches of the church in 1923. Pupils at Mount Nebo eventually began to pay a small fee to attend the school, and Riley hired an additional teacher.
Both the church and the school were successful, with many of Riley’s students transferring to the Brainerd Institute in Chester for high school. The Brainerd Institute was also run by the Board of Missions, and its graduates often went on to study at places like Allen University and Benedict College, both in Columbia.
Mount Nebo’s Uncertain Origins
A degree of uncertainty surrounds both the building shown here and Mount Nebo’s origins. The theories posted above are based on our best reading of the South Carolina Historical Record Survey, but unfortunately, that brief document raises almost as many questions as it resolves. The survey constitutes Mount Nebo’s only known written record. While it states that birth, death, and Sunday School records did exist for Mount Nebo prior to 1939, we have been unable to locate them thus far.
One question of course is, “Where was Mount Nebo first located?” Was it located near or within Lone Star, or was it located further away? Early journals of the Board of Missions indicate that Riley may have had a church named Mount Nebo in the Eutawville (Pineville) section of neighboring Orangeburg County, and in fact, a Mount Nebo church exists there today. While the existing church is African-American, it houses a Methodist congregation instead of a Presbyterian one. The building dates only from the mid-to-late twentieth century, and it is not located on River Road, as described in the South Carolina Historical Record Survey.
There was, interestingly, an historic Mount Nebo church and school located in Calhoun County itself, near a place called Staley Crossroads. This would put the original location nearer to Lone Star. No building remains, but satellite images show that there may be a small graveyard. The coordinates of this site are N33.62682° by W80.94815°. It also is located neither on nor near a River Road.
Further confusing matters is the fact that the current sanctuary was crafted with techniques that predate its mid-twentieth century construction by many decades. For example, the underside of the building reveals a combination of both hand-hewn sills and circle-sawn joists – a combination that would place the church in the range of the late 1800s to early 1900s, rather than 1939. According to architectural historian Bill Segars, who crawled under the church to capture the image below, the fact that chop marks are still visible indicates that the church is likely older than we think. “Earlier than the late 1800s to early 1900s, the sills would have been hand hewn and the joists would have been sash sawn. Later than the late 1800s to early 1900s, the sills and the floor joists would both have been circle sawn. My opinion,” Mr. Segars concludes, “is 1939 is too late for this building, unless the framing material was salvaged from an older building, which is possible.”
A third issue arises when one notes that the dimensions of the original church measured 40′ x 40′. Today’s church, located on Hutto Pond Road, measures an almost identical 39′ x 39′.* If the size of the second church did not provide additional space, why did the congregation decide to rebuild? One possibility is that the first church simply deteriorated over its first three decades. Another possibility is that Riley’s family relocated, and he took his church and school with him.
Finally, in a similar vein, the survey notes that the then-existing (original) church’s interior was divided with half being a church and half being a junior high school – “with seating capacity of church being 150.” Was the seating capacity of the school, which apparently took up 50 percent of the space, also 150? Journals of the Board of Mission show that Mount Nebo’s school did indeed have a large number of pupils as early as 1909, when it served 123 children. Taken together, this would equal 300 seats, which is also how many the survey claims the present church holds. This too begs the question, why rebuild if not to enlarge?
An even more problematic take on this point is whether or not a building this size could actually hold 300 people, as the survey states. As Mr. Segars points out, “Another example of the report’s vagueness is the seating capacity. I see 150 on each side and I see 300 people total. There’s no way that this building will seat 300 people, hardly 150. Today a 1,600 square-foot building (40′ x 40′) would be rated for 160 people, max.”
We are actively seeking more information about this church, its founder, and its members, and we welcome any knowledge you can contribute. Please write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Incredible Life and Death of William L. C. Riley
Mount Nebo’s founder, the Reverend William L. C. Riley,** led an accomplished life by anyone’s standards. In the era of Jim Crow, he held three advanced degrees, owned at least two parcels of land during his time, established a thriving church, and created a first-rate school that significantly improved the lives of its students. Nevertheless, without a few random words scrawled on a note at the end of the Historical Records Survey, almost nothing would be known of the Reverend Riley today. The author of the Historical Records Survey, a clerk named Anna Sinkler, took the time to include the following note, penned on a separate sheet and attached to the back of the standard form:
Riley seems to be a very remarkable negro. He has two diplomas from Lincoln University and one from State College Orangeburg. He owns the land the present church and school is on and has given two acres for the new church. He is very unassuming in manner and says he gets on well with all the white people of the community.
Aside from this brief observation, we have only two documents to guide us. The first is a federal census from 1920. It states that William Riley was 45 years old and the owner of a farm in Pine Grove. He had a wife named Viola, four sons, and two daughters. The census predates the birth of his daughter Maybel by eight and a half months. All of the members of his family were able to read and write.
The second document is his death certificate, which adds only that his place of birth was Beaufort County. We are unable to find either a birth certificate or an obituary for Riley. Despite obvious talent and his prominent role in the community, these few facts represent the sum total of everything we were able to learn about his life. Such is the fate of many African-Americans from the rural South. Few newspapers took notice of stories involving black people, and where written records may have existed, they are now scattered across place and time. Children move away in search of jobs, and stories of a family’s roots are not passed down. In Riley’s case, this invisibility is especially frustrating, both because of his remarkable life and his gruesome death.
It appears that in addition to being a farmer, pastor, and teacher, Riley was also a merchant and owned a store in Lone Star. In 1947, at the age of 61, Riley was murdered at his store with an ice pick. The perpetrator was believed to have been a 100-pound black man named Willie Edward Gidron, who was 19 at the time of the attack. Girdon had served as a private in the Army Air Corps and been honorably discharged.
He is buried at either St. John’s Baptist or St. Luke in Lone Star.
The sheriff of Calhoun County at that time, a white man named George David Tilley, apprehended Gidron shortly after Riley’s death. Everything we know about Riley’s death and Willie Gidron’s subsequent execution comes from reports regarding Tilley. No news articles or legal records appear to exist regarding Riley. His tragic demise passed, officially at least, without notice.
George Tilley was widely regarded as a good man.
Two days after Riley’s body was discovered, Tilley and a fellow officer discovered Gidron in a field with several other men. They took him into custody and then, according to both parties, went to another store, called Week’s. Tilley’s partner went home after this, and en route to Riley’s store to compare Gidron’s footprints to those left at the scene, Gidron pulled a gun out of his right boot and shot Tilley, who died eight days later. Gidron, who was handcuffed at the time and sitting in the front seat, hid in a nearby farmhouse until he was caught.
The details grow murkier after this, and although Gidron confessed to shooting Tilley, he remained adamant that he had not killed Riley. No other investigation into Riley’s death can be found. Gidron was charged with the death of Sheriff Tilley and electrocuted eight months after his arrest. Riley’s murder remains unresolved, and no one has ever been convicted of or punished for the crime.
The Reverend William Riley’s remains are interred at Mount Nebo, the church he founded and served for so long.
Mount Nebo Sources & Acknowledgements
* Special thanks to Bill Segars for his measurements of the existing sanctuary and especially for his patience and guidance as we worked together to unravel this mystery.
** In one record, the Reverend’s name is spelled Ryley and his first middle name is given as “Loyd.”
Reflections on Mount Nebo
Aaron Wyatt, whose photo appears on the page, says of Mount Nebo: “I found it as an interesting abandoned historical building of the South and enjoyed seeing it in person. I am originally from upstate New York, have lived in North Carolina for the past ten years, and recently have enjoyed viewing and photographing old abandoned and historic places in North Carolina and South Carolina.”