Pine Hill Christian
We know very little about the history of this African American church located among the tall Georgia pines in a remote section of Brooks County. There are many similar churches in this part of southwest Georgia, now dominated by quail plantations and large prosperous farms. However, Pine Hill Christian is a splendid example of Georgia history that is important for us to understand. The abandoned little church on this sandy road represents the emergence of African American religion in the post-Civil War period. This was the moment when the country, and particularly, the war ravaged south, began to cope with a strange new world that had been forever changed from what had gone before. As was often the case, the rural church remained the center of this world, and would offer comfort and spiritual sustenance to both races… but in very different ways. How did this poor but proud church pictured above come to exist, here among the remote sandy backroads and Georgia long leaf pines? It is quite a story and one that is very typical for rural black churches such as this in southwest Georgia.
This part of Georgia was ceded by the Lower Creeks in 1818 amid much strife and conflict as the state of Georgia began to emerge out of a vast wilderness. The first white settlers began moving into this area around 1818 as three new counties were formed out of the Indian lands (Early, Appling and Irwin). In time, these three counties were split into smaller ones as the population increased. Brooks County was officially created in 1858, having been carved out of Lowndes and Thomas Counties, which had in turn been formed out of Irwin County in 1825.
Large tracts of land now began to be assembled by successful planters who were aggressively taking advantage of the global economic boom created by the combination of the British industrial revolution and the quality and cost advantage of American cotton. King Cotton began to rapidly emerge as America’s most important export, after the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney on a Savannah plantation in 1793. This combination of British manufacturing expertise and the availability of American cotton created a huge global demand for cotton goods… and Georgia was right in the middle of it. The backbone of the American cotton industry and the plantation system that produced it was, of course, slavery. The emergence of King Cotton was pushing us into the abyss of the Civil War.
Many of the southern slaves attended the churches of their white masters and often outnumbered the white congregants. There were two dominant, white pre-Civil War churches located just up the road from Pine Hill in the little village of Grooverville. Both of those churches have been previously featured on HRCGA. Liberty Baptist was the dominant Baptist church, and Grooverville Methodist was the most prominent Methodist church in this area. Most certainly the congregation that created Pine Hill had its roots in one or both of these white churches. It is worth noting that Liberty Baptist has a prominent slave gallery and Grooverville Methodist does not. They both had many slave attendees but some churches had common, segregated services and others had separate services. We think the main points to remember are first, that the slaves were exposed to the white man’s religion in this pre-Civil War period and second, they chose to embrace it after the war……but in very different ways.
At the end of the war, both whites and blacks in the southern states had to carve out a life in an America that had been torn asunder. It took many years to sort out what emancipation meant. African Americans had to deal with the fact that they had their freedom, but virtually nothing else. And the whites now had to carry on in a land ravaged by war and the demographic disaster of the death of so many young men between 18 and 35. For both, the church was now the primary source of solace and spiritual comfort but interpreted in different ways. African Americans slowly began to migrate from the white churches to form their own sanctuaries, often with the assistance of the white congregations. This is the environment that created so many of these poor, yet noble, rural churches such as Pine Hill. We believe that rural churches provide us a unique perspective on Georgia’s settlement and development. The evolution of African American religion from pre to post Civil War is a significant element of that development.
We think it is important to keep in mind that so much of our present American culture and heritage is rooted in this turbulent period of our history and has made us who we are. For instance, we often wonder how much of our music, indeed the world’s music, stems from the black southern gospel roots that emerged in that fifty year period from 1870 to 1920. Much of this music and cultural influence came from little rural churches like this one in the south Georgia piney woods. Come inside and visit Pine Hill, the little church in the pines that represents such a big part of our American history and heritage.