The smell of fried fish, Southern seasoned beans and fresh yeast rolls engulfs you before you even set foot inside the fellowship hall at Soapstone Baptist Church. It is an aroma that is at once familiar and inviting and you can’t help but step inside to take a bite.
That’s exactly the reason Mable Owens Clarke started cooking at 5 a.m. on this recent Saturday morning in mid-January, to bring people in, and why she will continue as long as she is able.
By in, Clarke is referring to not only her church, which has been a stalwart of the Little Liberia community in South Carolina’s upper Pickens County for more than 150 years, but in, to a consciousness about the past. The community is the first settlement, and Soapstone is the first church, founded by freed slaves in the Upstate. But the stories, and the history of Little Liberia, have dwindled.
“Soapstone has been like a hidden secret,” Clarke said. “But it hadn’t gotten any recognition until I was able to expound on this and say the story’s gotta be told.”
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Nine years ago, Clarke decided to do something to keep the church and the community alive.
The fish frys are her answer, food is her tool.
The $12 plates of food have helped raise enough money to keep the lights on and the mortgage paid at the small church. But in a deeper sense, the meal brings people to the table, and the longer they sit, the more they come to understand.
“I can get food like this some other places, but I can’t get the whole package,” said Vickie Gibson, who is dining today with her husband, Wayne and their two friends, Rosalind and Dan Wood. “We have friends we’ve invited here and we’ve had a group from our church come because something like that is worth telling the story.”
Food as a doorway
Inside the fellowship hall on Saturday, the room is set for today’s meal. The room’s large round tables are covered in red tablecloths, and the buffet is a rainbow of steaming trays of food. The candied yams offer a bright, orange contrast to the verdant green beans, which complement the rich brown of the speckled butter beans and the creamy yellow of the squash casserole.
Clarke began cooking this feast on Thursday afternoon. She cooked all day Friday and was up early Saturday to finish tasks that must be done day of, including baking her famous cranberry chicken, baking the macaroni and cheese, making the scratch corn muffins and prepping the fried chicken.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence, I think food is a really important bond for Southerners in general,” said Mike Coggeshall, a cultural anthropologist and a professor at Clemson University, who has studied the Liberia community. “And for Mable, in particular, to bring people together over a common meal in a symbolically and historically important place, where, people can gather together, that’s a very powerful message.”
Clarke started the fish frys partly as a deathbed promise to her mother, to keep the doors of Soapstone Church open. But the mission has grown into much more. The money raised has helped keep the small church afloat, but the meals also have made the church relevant to a broader community.
One example is the discovery and restoration of the cemetery that sits on the church grounds. Clarke had heard about the cemetery where many of the freed slaves brought to Liberia were buried, but for decades, no one knew where it was.
“Have you seen the cemetery,” asked Roosevelt Aiken, Soapstone’s minister of music, who provides live music at each fish fry, and who serves as the resident historian and tour guide. “Let me take you there.”
A surveyor discovered the graves while assessing the church’s property lines back in the late 2000s. For Clarke, the discovery meant the conclusion of a story she’d heard her entire life, but it also meant the beginning of a new one.
“I had to feed my soul with all of these thoughts that were coming in,” Clarke said. “I said what can you do to give them some dignity? How can you get all these trees cut?”
Night after night, Clarke lay awake thinking about the people, her ancestors, the founders of Little Liberia, buried there. Then, she said, “God just put it in my spirit.” She sent letters to surrounding churches asking for help in clearing the land. In return, she promised “the best luncheon you’ve ever had.”
On that Saturday in 2010, about 35 people showed up. They worked until noon and Clarke, true to her word, served a feast. Fried fish, chicken, potato salad, green beans. Afterward, she expected them to leave, but they stayed to work, and that afternoon they came to the first grave.
Mable persevered. She contacted Pickens County and applied for a grant, to help clear the land, and she contacted Clemson University about helping restore some of the gravestones. That’s how she met Coggeshall. The professor was so infatuated with the Liberia community that he spent nearly a decade writing a book about it. The book is currently set to be published.
“There is this stereotype that white people in the mountains didn’t owns slaves, or that there weren’t many slaves in the mountains, but that’s not true either,” said Coggeshall, who already has promised the proceeds from his book to the Liberia community. “That’s why this is a pretty interesting community, we’re as close to the mountains as we can get in South Carolina, and here were African-American former slaves in the mountains, and most of them also left so the fact that Liberia is still here is in itself interesting.”
Back at the fish fry, Clarke bounds about the room, a spring in her step that belies her age. Look up and she is chatting with one of the tables of guests. Take a bite of creamed corn and next she has moved into the kitchen to oversee the second batch of collard greens. Turn around and she is at the front door, greeting a couple with hugs.
The first fish fry she held in 2008 only drew 25 people.
“I said, ‘Oh Lord, this is not working,’ ” Clarke recalled, closing her eyes for a moment.
The next month, 50 people came.
“It has gone from 50 to now up to close to 200 people on a Saturday,” Clarke said with a wide smile. “And it’s gone from fish to ribs to chicken and people ask for different things. I need to change it from fish fry to a smorgasbord.”
Soapstone lives on
On this recent Saturday, Clarke bounds about the fellowship hall at Soapstone, overseeing the replenishment of creamed corn and fried chicken, relaying fish orders to the staff in the kitchen (fish is fried to order) and visiting with just about everyone in the room.
“How is it?” Clarke asks one table of four friends. Her question is met with satisfied nods, as mouths are too full to answer.
Every now and again, Clarke stops her coordinated dance to give tours of the Soapstone sanctuary. The church is an integral piece to the history of the community. Clarke learned from an early age that you never miss church.
“You would have to be sick with the flu or half dead, you were going to church,” Clarke said with a laugh. “That was childhood until I was in 12th grade, every Sunday in church, you had to be there.”
Part of the allegiance to church was a deep faith, Clarke said, but part of it was also that church offered a place where being black was OK, and where you could learn about your heritage.
“We were taught the history, and I heard it in my home all the time,” Clarke said. “The history and the land, and what it meant to hold onto it.”
Clarke’s family connection runs deep. Her great-grandfather, Joseph McJunkin, founded Soapstone. McJunkin, who was one of the freed slaves that settled in the area, would hold services beside the giant soapstone rock, which sits perched just beside where the church stands today.
McJunkin donated the land on which the church building was eventually built. After the Ku Klux Klan burned the original church down in 1966, a new one was built a couple years later.
“There are often alternate perspectives on reality, that’s what we cultural anthropologists study,” Coggeshall said. “For almost two centuries there has been this resistance, this struggle by this small African American community to maintain a presence and often defend themselves against encroachment by larger white society. It’s an important story to tell.”
That reality is a delicate dance at the fish fry. Many who come are aware, but for many others, the fish fry is their first introduction not only to Soapstone Church but to the heritage of the this small African American community that sits just up the road from their own.
On this Saturday, the friends, Dan and Rosalind Wood and Vickie and Wayne Gibson are just finishing their meals, taking a minute to enjoy the atmosphere and Aiken’s music, which currently is a mix of Pink Floyd, songs from “The Wizard of Oz” and Motown hits. The four have been coming to the fish frys for about three years.
Initially, it was the food, they say that brought them in, but now, it’s everything.
“And you really have to respect that they are so enmeshed in their heritage that they want to put this much effort into keeping it going and sharing it,” Rosalind Wood said.
“So many of our people don’t have a clue what their heritage is,” Vickie Gibson said.
The four friends admit they didn’t’ really know themselves until they sat down over a plate of some of Clarke’s home cooked food. The food opened the door.
“When you first come you come for the food, but when you learn about the cause, that becomes equally important,” Rosalind Wood said. “At least I think it has for us.”
Watching Clarke move about the room, she is a sight to behold. By 3 p.m., she has been up nearly 12 hours and yet remains full of energy, doling out hugs, checking on tables, restocking food and remembering to ask about people’s sick relatives or new grandbabies.
She left Liberia at age 17 to attend college in Boston, Massachusetts, and she wasn’t sure she’d return. But home has a way of calling you back.
“I was in a bubble before, because I grew up there and I never paid the history any attention,” Clarke said. “I grew up on this land, but do you know I never saw the mountains. Because the mountains were there but when you’re in this bubble you don’t see.”
But when Clarke returned home in 1983, “it was like whoa! ‘Look at that beautiful mountain!’ ”
After the lunchtime rush, the fellowship hall is quieter but still buzzing. For a rainy day, the crowd has been surprisingly steady.
The fish frys have been successful, Clarke said, in both sustaining the church financially but also for posterity. The monthly meals have ensured the small church with its now tiny congregation, will live on.
“Food is comfort,” Clarke said, a smile creeping onto her face. “So I said if I get food out there, the people are gonna come, and I can tell them about the history.
“Now, what I have done is built ... I almost have built something bigger than me.”
Want to know more?
Soapstone Baptist Church Fish Fry Plus
When: The fish fry is held noon-7 p.m. on the third Saturday of every month except for December. Upcoming dates are this Saturday, Feb. 18, as well as March 18, April 15, May 20, June 17, July 15, Aug. 19, Sept. 16, Oct. 21 and Nov. 18.
Where: Soapstone Baptist Church, 296 Liberia Road, Pickens
Cost: $12 a plate
Info: (864) 414-8470