This humble chapel, located eight miles northeast of Pacolet in the Asbury community, is one of few remaining African-American churches in the South Carolina upcountry dating from the Reconstruction era. Prior to Emancipation, slaves typically accompanied their white owners to church. In this part of Cherokee County, that meant that most slaves attended nearby Asbury Methodist Church.
After the Civil War, former slaves were eager to establish their own churches where they could worship freely. Oral histories hold that Mulberry Chapel Methodist Church was built sometime around 1880 after Major Jack Littlejohn, a white landowner and former master, donated five acres to the future congregation, provided its members would pick the cotton and clear the grounds.
This information is not necessarily corroborated by the 1876 deed, however, which says that Ellison Knuckolls [sic], Emanual Littlejohn, and Strapp Littlejohn bought the land for $200 from Benjamin F. Dawkins, Sarah Dawkins, J. W. Tench, and N. E. Tench. Oral histories do connect the latter four names to the church’s origin, however, so perhaps there is an overlap. (Major Littlejohn died in 1872.)
Many freedmen kept the surnames of their former owners, and an African-American branch of Littlejohns attended services here for decades. Mulberry Chapel remained active until the 1940s. Though the church now stands largely dormant, members of the Littlejohn family still meet here annually for reunions. Together, these descendants of the church’s founders work on the aging building – which leans noticeably to the right – issuing repairs as they can. They have also been successful both in placing an historical marker nearby and in adding the landmark to the National Register.
Numerous Littlejohn, Dawkins, and Nuckles ancestors are buried in the church’s graveyard, including noted South Carolina African-American Samuel Nuckles, a former slave who served as one of three black state representative from Union County (prior to the creation of Cherokee County) during Reconstruction. As such, he participated in South Carolina’s 1868 Constitutional Convention. There are roughly 40 known graves in all, half of which are unmarked. The most recent gravestone dates to 2006.
Finally, Mulberry Chapel is notable for its architecture, which according to the National Register, serves as an “intact example of a vernacular form of Gothic Revival ecclesiastical architecture” – a fancy way of saying that the church was built by laymen (former slaves) who added Gothic Revival details to the extent that they were able given their budget and supplies. The stain-glass cross embedded above the front door was created by a neighbor and added two years after the dedication of the church’s historic marker in 2008. It may have replaced an earlier window. The belfry still stands proudly atop the roof and boasts its original bell.
It is important to note that a different Littlejohn reunion for the descendants of the Litttlejohns from Asbury Methodist is held at the nearby church each October.
As mentioned, Mulberry Chapel is listed in the National Register:
Mulberry Chapel Methodist Church, built circa 1880, is significant for its association with African American heritage in the South Carolina upcountry during Reconstruction and for its architectural significance as an intact example of a vernacular form of Gothic Revival ecclesiastical architecture. Mulberry Chapel Methodist Church is a local example of one of the most significant social changes precipitated by black freedom – the establishment of independent black churches and denominations. It was part of a large social pattern, which resulted from two pressures: blacks’ desire to exercise their hard-won freedom from slavery and to avoid white antagonism. Before the Civil War, black slaves in the surrounding area attended the Asbury Methodist Church less than a mile away. By 1870, most blacks and whites worshiped in separate churches.
Mulberry Chapel Methodist Church is one of only a few extant African-American churches in South Carolina dating from the first twenty-five years after the Civil War and is a rare example in the South Carolina upcountry. The northern half of the property contains a historic cemetery with approximately twenty marked graves and an additional twenty or more unmarked ones. Headstones date from 1888 to the 1960s. It is organized by family plot. Many of the people interred in the cemetery may have been former slaves, as indicated by the birth years. The most prominent figure associated with the cemetery is Samuel Nuckles, a former slave who served in the 1868 Constitutional Convention and represented Union County in the South Carolina House of Representatives during Reconstruction, between 1868 and 1872.
Reflections on Mulberry Chapel
Tom Taylor, a Greenville-based photographer and adventurer, shared the photos above. He visited Mulberry Chapel in late January 2014, after a small Upstate snowfall, and describes the scene he found that cold Thursday morning: “Just a few hundred yards past the Nuckolls-Jeffries House, Mulberry Chapel sits just a bit off the road to the left. The little church truly is a beautiful structure, but it’s also not in the best of shape. The belfry is listing a bit, although the bell is still there. The entire building seems to be leaning to the right, to the point that it has separated from its chimney on the left side of the building.” (Read more of Tom’s Mulberry post.)