Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Bringing Zion To Life

Antoinette, Abigail and the majority of the other players in Marching to Zion are fictitious characters. A couple of the smaller players, and one entity, are not. J.L. Girardeau and Benjamin Palmer both make brief cameos in the story. I tried to place them in settings that are true to their character and work. But behind the scenes, during the latter part of the story, a building quietly sits. It has no lines of dialogue and will not receive a rich description of her facade, hallways or sanctuary. This is done purposefully. I want the building where this extraordinary event occurred to stand on its own. Her strength will speak for itself instead of a few paltry words I place on paper. I do however, want to know more about her. This whole project has brought her into my focus and I hope to say very little from a storehouse of knowledge.

South Carolina's bookstores play host to regional sections that contain numerous books on the state and on Charleston in particular. I searched through several that focused on architecture and churches but had yet to find a depiction of this large church building purchased by whites for the use of slaves. Until last Saturday.

While surfing the web one day, I came across a title at the Library of Congress that made me sit up. The History of Zion, Olivet and Zion-Olivet by Lois Averette Simms had apparently been published in the 80s. I immediately began surfing Amazon and Barnes & Nobles, but quickly discovered the book was out of print. I checked the bookstore at the Avery Institute and found the same there. I tried to call Zion-Olivet but there wasn't any answer, (if this book sells, I'm going to buy an answering machine for that little church!) Then Dr. Willborn directed me to the Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina. A little treasure tucked between the lowcountry and the Upstate, the library at the former South Carolina College held a 60 page publication I hoped would answer all my questions.

What a gorgeous campus! Trees lined the U-shaped courtyard where squirrels frolicked and searched for nuts. We walked from the Visitor Center and walked down the wide path to the top of the U where the Caroliniana Library was located. A small winding staircase took us upstairs to the main gallery. In just a few minutes, I held the book in my hand and began my search.

It contained less history of the original Zion than I had hoped, but I was able to gather a few pieces of new knowledge before flipping through the remainder of the book. I didn't find any indication where the cemetery would be located, but I did, finally, see a picture of Zion Presbyterian Church. It was bigger, and darker, than I imagined and the front walkways on both sides of the building seemed to me to be like arms reaching out. Here a congregation of blacks (sitting in the main sanctuary, not the gallery) and whites worshipped together. Here John L. Girardeau taught from the scriptures until the time he joined the confederate army and fought not for slavery, but for her independence. And here the events that brought about the beginnings of a novel over 140 years later were whispered in the hallways.

We plan to go to Charleston soon, to search through deed records to find where Zion's cemetery lies. I hope the answer is in my next post.

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