(bright music) ♪ Mm mm ♪ ♪ Praise the Spirit child ♪ ♪ Praise the Spirit child ♪ - [Narrator] At the Sapelo Festival USA in 1990, the acclaimed performance troop, Urban Bush Women, premiered a new and exciting work.
♪ Spirit child ♪ Inspired by the life of ♪ Praise the Spirit child ♪ visionary artist Minnie Evans, and based on the religious beliefs and practices of the Gullah people of the Sea Islands.
It was called simply, ♪ The child come to me ♪ "Praise House."
♪ In the Spirit child ♪ ♪ The child come to me ♪ ♪ In the Spirit child ♪ ♪ The child come to me ♪ ♪ In the Spirit child ♪ ♪ Pray in the Spirit child ♪ - It was good old time.
It was so nice, you know?
And I was a little girl but I could always remember when time to have a prayer meeting that night, I'd be so happy and glad.
I'd be dressed before the sun go down, so I could be there to enjoy these old times singing.
They do you so good.
You don't hear them now like that time, you know?
And all the people could take an old spiritual and they would sing and shout.
You could feel something that's going all through you.
And you know that there was a God somewhere.
♪ Pray ♪ ♪ Pray ♪ ♪ Pray ♪ ♪ Pray y'all ♪ ♪ Pray ♪ ♪ Pray ♪ ♪ Pray ♪ ♪ Pray ♪ ♪ Pray ♪ ♪ Pray ♪ ♪ Pray ♪ ♪ Pray ♪ - I believe that the Praise House African American community offered the purest form of Christianity because in it, folk who were victimized by a system that claimed to be Christian responded to that system and responded to one another in the true biblical sense of community and real agape love, unconditional love.
- The folks enjoy it.
And folks seems to me, I realize now what it mean.
The folks then was more together people.
They was more close than, seemed like they had such a touch and tenderness for each other.
- The music in the Praise House wasn't no more than clapping your hands together, patting your feet and the voice that the good Lord give us.
That's all we had.
We didn't have no piano, no instrument at all.
The only music that we had was God given music; clapping, shouting, and singing.
And it sounds so good you wanna stay there all night.
(The Urban Bush Women singing) - Singing is a part of the culture.
It's a part of the food, it's a part of the way we dress.
It's a part of how we react to families.
It's a part of how we take care of each other.
It's a part of the language, the Gullah language.
It's a part of the whole thing.
It's not separate.
And a lot of people are trying to separate it out and put it in the freeze and keep it.
You can't do that with it.
It's gonna have to, you're going kill the culture then you automatically kill that.
- I hate the fact that we don't have a prayer house anymore.
So that's the way it goes.
We should have kept it just for prosperity sake or something, but we didn't.
♪ Down come the rain all day ♪ ♪ Down come the rain all day ♪ ♪ Down come the rain all day ♪ - [Narrator] The Praise House is a uniquely American phenomenon.
Indigenous to the Gullah communities along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.
It is a house of worship, music, community and tradition.
♪ All day ♪ ♪ God will come a day ♪ ♪ A day I'm broke into my soul ♪ ♪ God will come a day ♪ ♪ New Year day ♪ On the Sea Islands and along the coast, whites established plantations with the labor of African slaves.
There was a large main house, usually occupied by the owner in his family during the winter and milder seasons.
Not far from the main grounds were the slave quarters or Slave Street.
Here cabins lined up in rows on each side of a road and often the first or most prominent cabin was the Praise House, complete with a bell.
- The Praise House really started as something that the slaves in the slave streets, the slave communities on the old plantations, put up themselves for worship.
There's some disagreement whether they should be called praise like P R A I S E or P R A Y S. Some of the early students of slave life reported as the Pray House, which gives an indication that it was a Gullah verb rather than a a noun.
But there's no question that in the Praise House there's both praying and praise go on.
So probably either name it may really reflect that sort of double meaning that we know of how slaves use words.
- Margaret Creel and her book "A Peculiar People" gave what I think is an accurate explanation of how the term Praise House came about.
It was actually identified as a time for prayers in the Gullah dialect.
Prayers was pronounced praise and P R A Y S and of course out of that grew praise, P R A I S E. But it was a place of worship for the African Americans on each plantation.
- [Narrator] These meeting houses first appeared after 1840.
They were erected not only to provide the slaves a place of worship, but also to minimize the opportunity for slaves on different plantations to mingle.
Despite its restricting force, The Praise House offered the Gullahs their primary means of free expression and served as the center of community.
- They're are more than just, I mean they're smaller and often cruder affairs than elaborate churches, but in some senses they're more than churches too.
They were a community center for the slave community and for former slaves and their descendants afterwards.
They were sort of, they regulated social life among the community members.
They almost defined who could be and who was not a member of the community.
A transgressor could be effectively shunned.
If they were not members of the Praise House then they were not members of the community.
And it was very effective means of social control that the Gullah speaking blacks themselves were able to control.
- When they knew that someone had a misunderstanding in the area, in the sector, community rather, they would get a report, someone would report them.
And when they report them, if it's a lady, these women committees would go and counsel them, meet to the prayer house and they would counsel them and make them understand what's been going and what's been right and what went wrong and cause them to shake hand and bring peace to each other.
Then they're happy again.
- It seems to me that this system that was really intended for no good did in fact prove good because it became the context in which slaves could physically be down and spiritually stand up.
- [Narrator] On most of the sea islands as well as along the coastal areas, the old praise houses no longer stand.
Time brings about change and as people left the islands to seek work and prosperity, they left the praise houses behind, such as the story on Sapelo Island off the Georgia Coast.
- Most of 'em, the ones homeless, got old and dilapidated and they decided to tear it down and found that they had no more need for it since the communities got smaller.
And once they got smaller, the churches moved closer into where the community was.
So they'd build a new structure.
So then you could go right down the road to the big church and you didn't have no more need for the small one anymore.
So they just got rid of it.
There's spaces there, but there's nothing there.
There's an empty spot where the Praise House used to be.
- [Narrator] St. Helena's Island in Beaufort County South Carolina is one of the areas where the Praise House tradition endured.
Here Brick Church was constructed by slaves for their masters in 1855.
In 1862, when the whites fled the island during the Civil War, the slaves, who had worshiped in the balcony all along, then took over the church.
Laura Towne, founder of Penn School, the state's first normal industrial and agricultural school for blacks, held classes here before the school was constructed.
Here at Brick, as in the surrounding churches the Praise House influence can still be felt.
(church bell ringing) - One advantage of the Praise House system working for slaves and their descendants on St. Helena is the fact that St. Helena was a very remote area and is a very remote area and a lot of the plantation owners chose to not live here.
African Americans on St. Helena were really fortunate in that they were able to retain a lot of autonomy in spite of slavery.
They were able to retain a lot of African ways, African customs, even the language.
There wasn't a forcing into what we might call a mainstream.
- [Narrator] As recently as 1932, there were as many as 25 known praise houses still in existence on this island.
Today only four structures remain.
Coffins Point, Eddings Point, Croft, and Mary Jenkins.
All are listed in the historical register but only two of the four still function.
Even so, their numbers are so low that they oftentimes combine their services into one.
♪ By and by ♪ ♪ By and by ♪ ♪ Oh land the Lord a job ♪ - There was the group that if you needed help they would help you.
And all the older people die out and the younger ones, they forget about it.
And I want to see God's house go on.
♪ And will on the tiny bell ♪ ♪ By and by ♪ - The whole tradition, somebody trying to keep up with the older people live now in the prayer house we have a chance to exercise what's ever more and they're not going to church.
See, when we go to church, mostly preacher and certain people sing in prayer.
But in the prayer house you have chance to sing, prayer, read this, you know, scripture and try to illustrate it best as you can but mostly got special people in the church.
I don't believe in give up unless there's in but two of us, 'cause I made a vow.
I made a word until, I made it until, but it was with God.
I promise to follow the truth.
Praise mercy until death.
When death, ain't nothing I can do then.
But I try to hold up as long as one come, I'm a hold out.
And we used to have this place full.
The first place was right there.
Then with so much people, we had to extend it back.
But not all good bit of people ran off in the city for job then a lot of the people just quit.
A lot died.
But then we still a few, what hell he try to, you know put the pool together and keep the thing going.
- Seems to me like, and the sixth chapter, sixteenth verse of Jeremiah says, "See and ask for the old paths, where there's a good way is and you will find when you walk in there the older folk have paved the way for the younger people to walk.
And we don't want to be like the heathen who Jeremiah was talking to.
We want to be Christlike.
Christian, mean Christlike.
So we want to walk.
- In fact, I raised up in prayer houses.
I used to go to prayer house with my grandmother use to carry me to prayer house when I was bare feeted and hitch the oxen, the cart and take us over the water, you know?
(members singing) The reason the folks does not go like they used to, because lately the churches pull everything from the community and take 'em to the church.
Which the prayer house, it was strength to the community, with the younger people.
It seems to me like the people start getting a lot of education and now ministers come and preach and they takes all of that from community.
And I feel like it's wrong.
I feel like the community need these things so that the kids wouldn't have too much leisure time to study on drugs and gamble or maybe whatever.
- In African societies also, there is an inextricable blend of the secular and the sacred.
You just don't separate religion from life.
Religion is life.
And in the Praise House community, African Americans maintained that same mentality.
You know, you did not separate the way you lived on the plantation from the Praise House experience.
So if you did something out of line you were handled by folk in the Praise House and you had to give some kind of account for that.
- But I still go because I feel like that's my foundation.
So I encourage folks to come to praise.
And just like in our prayer house in Croft, it doesn't tend too much in Croft and it doesn't tend too much in Jenkins.
They don't attend any in this one here.
But I said to a cousin of mine, I said those people, all the people that struggle to see that prayer house put here in this community for the younger people, I say we ain't gonna let it go down.
So I worked on it, fix it, so that who's ever there we'll let him come.
- I was large enough to trail behind my parent when I was five years old, you know, and we had our prayer house was about three quarter, about half a mile from where our house was.
And so I can say that from that time up until now, I'll say at least from 1927, I could remember us going on in the prayer house.
- [Narrator] From Deacon Legree, we learned of the African influenced tradition of seeking.
- You find yourself a spiritual father, that person could be a deacon or a leader.
In fact, if you see in a dream where it is your mother or father, they couldn't deny that.
Then you would take all your dreams to that individual and they would know exactly.
And you bring the right dream to them.
And if you are real, they can tell when you approach them, they could see it in you.
Your confidence are changed.
Your speech is so much lift up, you know?
- See the old folk is very strict on religion in them days.
You see, you had to really get down and see God, you know, and see dreams and take dreams to teacher.
You was my teacher, I take my dream to you.
You have to pray along with me.
I pray hard on me to know if I'm get true or not.
See, that's salvation.
That's seeking your salvation on the outside.
That's called the willingness salvation.
♪ How do you feel when you come out the willingness ♪ That's your test from the old folks and them folks gotta be know and be solid and pray with God.
And that's what the old folks learned in me and that's what I learned from.
And then your baptized, your baptize in that water, rise through like Christ did.
When you get to go to the church and the preacher do almost all the way.
You preach and read his scripture, probably in prayer, he may call him the deacons to prayer.
But that prayer house is a training station.
But see, you can't do that in the church.
You see, 'cause the pastor do most of his job or he do probably pick up the deacons.
Or if he have pulpit guests, that probably two pastors, they do all the job.
See, he was young man feeling sprayed or you know, along preaching.
And that's prayer house is a training station.
Learn you how to sing, learn you how to raise him, learn you how to read him, learn you how to pray.
That's where them prayers are for.
- [Narrator] Deacon Johnson also shared with us the origin of Watch Night.
An African American Praise House tradition of seeing in the new year through prayer, watchfulness and song.
♪ Amen ♪ ♪ Watch man ♪ ♪ Watch man ♪ ♪ Please tell me Lord, of the night ♪ The guide to the door now you see ♪ It is now ♪ ♪ It is now ♪ ♪ It is now four minutes to twelve ♪ ♪ And the most unknown ♪ Then the whole church said, ♪ Oh Lord ♪ ♪ Oh Lord ♪ ♪ Oh Lord have mercy on me.
♪ - [Narrator] Similar traditions were observed on Sapelo Island in Georgia.
Although remote and totally isolated except by boat, on Sapelo the praise houses no longer remain.
- Meeting places, then came prayer houses, and then came churches so it came in that form in a lot of places like this.
'Cause even Sapelo, their history will not tell you that there was such thing that the people down here, you know, our church was organized May the 2nd, 1866.
That was the big church but before that, people actually met in open places in the woods.
Then there was prayers houses and then there was a big church.
So it came in that order.
They, most of 'em, the ones homeless got old and dilapidated and they decided to tear it down and found that it had no more need for it since the communities got smaller and once they got smaller, the churches moved closer into where the community was.
So they build a new structure so then you can go right down the road to the big church and they had no more need for the small one anymore so they just got rid of it.
- When I was a very little girl there was a prayer house over on John's Island down there on the end of John's Island departure called Jenkins Point.
And my mother and we all lived there on a plantation.
They used to have a meeting on Tuesday night was prayer meeting and Thursday night was experienced meeting.
You get up and you testify they called at that time experience.
Experience what you know and what the Lord have did for you.
And on Sunday night, then they have the man, they would get up to the desk and say they, you know, preaching, they would speak to you about the Bible and different things.
And all the ladies on Sunday night while the man's preaching and then we bring 'em up.
And I was a little girl, but I always remember and enjoy it.
It was very nice.
Nothing but that old time religion.
♪ Old time religion ♪ - The children would sit on the back seat in the prayer house and when the adult get through testifying or praying then it was time for the kids to say their prayer, the Our Father prayer and we do that and then finally you learn a little longer prayer, you say a little bit more as you get older you say a little more and then you get into what they call long prayer.
And those were what they call a good old days back then.
We enjoyed it and we don't have it like that anymore 'cause as you can see our prayer house is no longer operational.
(singing) - Oh, we used to have a marvelous time.
People don't shout now like we did back then because the ladies did the shout with their feet, you know, now when they shout, they sort of move or sway their body somewhat and just they move their feet but it's not in the rhythmatic movement like then.
And shouting on a board floor, it has a tremendous sound, a beautiful sound.
(singing) - [Narrator] At the Sea Island Comprehensive Rural Housing Center, which Maggie McGill directs, the senior citizens often congregate informally in prayer and song.
Thus we see evidence of the praise tradition continuing in new surroundings.
(seniors singing) Janie Hunter, the matriarch of the Moving Star Hall singers, is instrumental in perpetuating both the music and the memories.
- I was raised in that hall from a child.
We have all night worship and we start service at about eight o'clock Saturday night, we go until eight o'clock Sunday morning.
Singing praise God all night long.
(singing) I don't know this new song.
Singing the feelings, tomorrow you do it again.
Spread the feelings, keeps going and going and going.
And all of us you know any song there is, each other know.
We don't have to rehearse.
(Moving Star Hall singing) - [Narrator] According to Mrs. Hunter, the original Moving Star Hall was a direct derivative of the African Secret Society.
- Moving Star Hall is a nation.
In the olden days people couldn't drive no insurance for bad when they die.
And they made a sign they call them a society, Moving Star Society.
When anybody sick, the neighbors go to each house and pray for them, sit with them all night and to die they'd make the box and see that the bury, that's what society for.
And that is one of the older thing on the island sight here in Lowish and we still carry it on.
(Moving Star Hall singing) - It's the feeling, it's a thing that everybody feels the Moving Star Hall singers although they're only five or six individuals, when they're part of their whole group, they're testifying to their own feeling with God and to the problems or to the happiness of their families.
And when they go out of that they go out into the world and perform a lot of times but even in those performances they're still feeling what they're about and what's going on within their own soul.
(Moving Star Hall singers singing) ♪ Oh no I surrender ♪ - [Narrator] While the actual number of praise house structures is dwindling, there are those like the Moving Star Hall singers and the Senior Lights of John's Island, the McIntosh Shouters of Georgia and the Sea Island singers of Georgia who consciously strive to keep tradition alive.
♪ Heist the window ♪ ♪ Heist the window ♪ ♪ Let the doves come in ♪ ♪ Who's that yonder ♪ - It seems to me that the beauty of the Praise House tradition is from something that is very much the people of this island.
We can rescue our communities and we can lend some structure and substance to our communities in spite of the negative forces within and without.
- I'm always reluctant to predict anything dying out.
It may be just transforming itself as all culture always does.
- I've been more fortunate than a lot of people because I've had an anchor and that anchor has been there on John's Island.
My grandmother raised me with the attitude from the same singing and shouting that anything that can't bend will break.
And she said, well son you gotta be like the angel oak.
And you know, when the wind and the rain and the storm comes, it rocks but when the sun comes out, it stands majestic.
♪ Heist the window ♪ ♪ Let the doves come in ♪ ♪ I'm working on a building ♪ ♪ I'm working on a building ♪ ♪ I'm working for my Lord ♪ ♪ Soon as I get finished ♪ ♪ Working on this building ♪ ♪ Going home to heaven ♪ ♪ Get my reward ♪