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Mable Owens Clarke: One Person Can Indeed Make a Difference

Written by: Carlton N. Owen, Soapstone Preservation Endowment 

Overview

 

  • Mable Owens Clarke’s great-grandfather, Joseph McJunkin a freed slave, donated the small parcel that today hosts Soapstone Baptist Church, the former slave cemetery, and the one- room school that Mable attended in her early years.

  • The church began as a brush arbor in the mid-1860’s as the worship site for 600 freed slaves. It was later replaced by a wooden building that in 1967 was burned by the Ku Klux Klan. One-year later it was rebuilt using funds generated by members who sold vegetables in nearby communities. That building still serves as the center of the historic site.

  • At age 17, like so many looking for greater opportunity, Mable left her beloved Liberia Community for Boston where she sought higher education and a career in accounting.

  • When her parents were in declining health, she returned home to take care of them.

  • A promise to never let the doors of Soapstone close led to a 22-year effort to host a community fish fry to raise funds to support the church.

  • In 2020, when at the urging of a developer the bank called the mortgage, friends from across the state, nation, and world rallied to raise $50,000.

  • To ensure that the church would never be threatened with development again, in 2022, Soapstone Church and the surrounding property was included in a conservation easement.

  • With Mable as a founding Board Member, the newly formed Soapstone Preservation Endowment is working to raise funds to ensure that, should the church ever cease to function, the site will always stand to tell the story of the people of the Liberia Community.

Background

 

Margaret Mead’s quote -- Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. – is the story of tiny Soapstone Baptist Church (soapstonechurch.com) and its indominable matriarch Mable Owens Clarke.

 

Mable’s ancestors, among a group of freed slaves, chose the rocky soils of northern Pickens County as the place to seek their own destiny – a site that area farmers were willing to sell as the lands were too poor to farm. Sitting on a small hilltop donated by her great grandparents, Soapstone Church continues to “look to the hills” to South Carolina’s iconic Table Rock Mountain.

 

If starting with nothing and working poor soil to feed their own families and then selling surplus crops to buy the land was not hard enough, the people of Soapstone had to continually face threats and challenges. As the land become more valuable for recreation and housing, the KKK came calling in 1967 and burned the church to the ground. Surplus crops once again paved the way for a new beginning. Vegetables sold by Mable’s parents and kin provided the weekly funds to buy a few cinder blocks that the pastor would lay in place. One year later the “new” Soapstone was again open for praise and worship.

As more area residents sought opportunities in the mills of Greenville or the factories of Detroit, the once vibrant church attendance declined. After graduating High School (after having attended the one-room schoolhouse that still sits next to Soapstone Church), Mable too sought greater possibilities elsewhere. She abandoned her adopted Boston to return home to care for her aging parents and special needs brother.

Mable tells the story of how from her deathbed her more than 100-year-old mother asked her youngest daughter to make two promises – to care for her special needs brother and to “never let the doors of Soapstone Church close.” Mable made those promises and set about keeping them. With too few members to support even the modest needs of the declining church, Mable opted to use another of her skills – cooking – to raise funds. What began as a single “fish fry” with all the fixings on a Saturday open to any who would come lasted 22-years. Ten months out of each year the third Saturday meant a fish fry at Soapstone with Chef Mable leading the crew.

In the latter years it was common for more than 1,000 people to make their way to the rural Liberia Community to partake of Mable’s cooking and add needed funds to pay the church’s bills. Just when things were looking up, the bank that held the mortgage that had allowed the addition of a kitchen and dining room to support the monthly patrons, decided to call the loan. With only 90-days to raise the insurmountable $50,000, Mable’s investment in people over the two decades, led to success. Monies came from Pickens, Greenville, Columbia, London, and Paris. Just before the 90-days were up, the mortgage was fully paid!

So as to never face the threat of losing the property that had been the center of the Liberia Community for more than 150 years, Mable and a team of supporters set about ensuring the protection of the church and grounds in perpetuity. With the aid of the South Carolina Conservation Bank, the Upstate Land Conservation Fund, and Upstate Forever, the church, one- room school, and the slave cemetery are forever protected.

Now and to the Future

To ensure that should Soapstone ever cease to exist as a functioning church, the newly created Soapstone Preservation Endowment (soapstonepe.org) has been created as a standalone not- for-profit to protect the building and ground and promote the story of Soapstone and its people for future generations.

Soapstone Baptist Church continues to have weekly services under the leadership of part-time pastor, Chester Trower, with viewership from well beyond the hills of northern Pickens County via livestreaming. Yet, less than a dozen members remain in the once thriving church, with Mable soon to be eighty-one, the youngest.

 

A love for people of all colors. A commitment to sustain her family’s legacy. A talent for cooking. A warm hug and a wide smile. This and much more is Mable Owens Clarke and the legacy she is leaving for the people of South Carolina in the story of Soapstone Church and the people of the Liberia Community.

 

Mable Owens Clarke Bio Sketch

 

Mable Owens Clarke is a sixth-generation native of rural Pickens County, South Carolina. She attended a one-room Rosenwald-era African American school that continues to stand immediately adjacent to Soapstone Baptist Church. She attended the school through the fifth grade until it closed due to mandatory school consolidation. She completed her secondary education at an all-Black school in Easley, SC. Upon graduation she moved to Boston where she pursued higher education and a career in accounting.

 

After many years she returned to her native Liberia Community to aid her aging parents. To keep a promise to her mother, she cared for her special needs brother until his death and for 22-years she hosted a monthly (10 months/year) fish fry lunch to raise funds to support Soapstone Baptist Church that founded by freed slaves on lands donated by her great- grandparents. Her efforts led to state-wide and international recognition and support and directly led to payment of an outstanding mortgage and placement of a perpetual conservation easement over the property that will ensure protection of the church, a former slave cemetery, and the one-room school.

 

Mable has willingly shared the story of the Liberia Community with groups near and far. Her work has led to significant media attention and relationships with local Boy Scouts and students from Clemson University. The story is chronicled in a book by Clemson Professor John Coggeshall entitled “Liberia, South Carolina: An African American Appalachian Community.”

Mable has been recognized for her work to preserve the story and history of the Liberia Community and Soapstone Church and its facilities including the 2022 Order of the Palmetto and the 2022 Stewardship Award by Upstate Forever.

 

She and her husband Charles continue to reside adjacent to Soapstone Church on land acquired by her great-grandparents who were freed slaves. She remains an active member of the church where she is a deacon. She and Charles have one adult son.

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