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Monolith honoring community matriarchs unveiled at historic Soapstone Baptist Church

Soapstone Baptist Church in Pickens County continues to capture international attention with last week’s unveiling of a monolith by Guatemalan artist Keith L. Andrews on the grounds of the church founded around 1865.

The little church on Liberia Road has long been associated with Mable Owens Clarke’s famous fish fries, held monthly to bring attention to the church founded by former slaves and to help pay off the church mortgage.

Soapstone Church gained further notoriety in 2018 when Clemson University Anthropology Professor Mike Coggshall published Liberia, South Carolina: An African American Appalachian Community that tells the story of the five generations of the Owens family and the little community tucked away off Pumpkintown Road in Pickens County. Clarke and Coggshall began traveling regularly to lectures and book signings, shedding new light on the African American experience in Appalachia and the stories of a little-known and largely ignored community in Pickens County, SC. Proceeds from the sale of the book are returned to the community for historical preservation and presentation.

Then last year brought a perfect storm.

COVID-19 shut down the monthly fish fries around the time the bank began pressuring the church for payoff of its $46,000 loan, according to Clarke. Supporters started a GoFundMe campaign to retire the mortgage, then a well-timed article on Clarke and her fish fries appeared in Eating Well magazine.

“After that article, we started receiving donations from Belgium, London, all over the world,” Clarke said. Soapstone celebrated its new-found fame and good fortune with a mortgage burning ceremony this past November.

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For Andrews, the Soapstone sculpture project is a perfect fit for his art, which he says is a way to recognize special people, including everyday heroes who remind us that many millions of humans do wonderful things. The sculpture, entitled “A Praying Woman Rising from the Rock,” was unveiled in a ceremony on Saturday, March 6.

Dr. Keith L. Andrews, creator of the Soapstone monolith, speaks during the unveiling ceremony.

“Liberia/Soapstone’s story allowed me to recognize the ever-present matriarchs who, generation after generation, assure the well-being of progress of our communities,” said Andrews, who worked on the project through the artist residency program at The Rensing Center in Pickens.

Soapstone Pastor Chester Trower said he hopes the sculpture is one of many to be placed on the church grounds.

“We know that art is an excellent medium with which to visualize concepts or events that would otherwise be difficult to imagine through the use of mere words,” Trower said. “There are many aspects of this fine piece of art that will lift our minds to a higher plain. It’s our fervent hope that this piece by Dr. Andrews will be the first of many to grace these hallowed grounds.”

Andrews said he would like to work with other sculptors from the region to consider what might be added to the grounds.

“This is one of the most remarkable settings for sculptures that I know of in the world and let’s do something with it,” Andrews said.

The unveiling of the Andrews monolith signaled the beginning of a new phase for Soapstone, according to Clarke. The next project is restoration of the one-room schoolhouse adjacent to the church, which is thought to be the oldest African American school in South Carolina. The church will use it as a place for children in the community who need tutoring and other assistance, Clarke said.

Want to visit?

Soapstone Baptist Church and Historic Soapstone Church Cemetery, 296 Liberia Road, Pickens SC 29671, (864) 414-8470

The next Soapstone Fish Fry will be held on Saturday, March 20, from 11:30 am – 5:00 p.m. in the church fellowship hall.

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