Slaves didn’t just build the Unitarian Church in Charleston, S.C. They also dug the clay to make the bricks that form the sanctuary walls.
A new memorial made from some of the church’s original bricks honors those enslaved workers. The memorial was completed in April in the churchyard of the historic building, and it will be dedicated on September 22 at a special service and community celebration.
The three-foot-high monument is a simple brick rectangle, two feet thick and four feet wide. Mounted on the front of it is a wrought-iron sculpture of a bird looking over its back. The bird is a sankofa, a West African symbol from Ghana meaning “looking back in order to move forward.”
An inscription on the granite base of the monument reads: “In memory of those enslaved workers who made these bricks and helped build our church.”
The monument stems from two years of research and brainstorming by church member and historian Paul Garbarini. In 2010, the Unitarian Church in Charleston, a National Historic Landmark built in 1774, was in the midst of building a handicap-accessible ramp in front of the sanctuary. The construction process required a crew to remove layers of Colonial-era brick from a part of the building. “It fascinated me to no end to look at those bricks,” Garbarini said.
He asked the construction crew to save the historic bricks. Many didn’t survive, and turned to dust. But about 100 bricks were saved, and Garbarini set about devising a way to use those bricks to memorialize the anonymous, enslaved people who built the church.
Garbarini took inspiration from a sandstone marker in the U.S. Capitol building. The Slave Labor Commemorative Marker acknowledges the role that enslaved Americans played in constructing the U.S. Capitol.
The church’s vestry, or governing board, approved the building of a memorial in the churchyard, which includes pathways among historic gravestones and a rambling English garden. Church members donated $4,300 toward the costs of the monument.
Garbarini has immersed himself in the history of the church, Charleston, and brickmaking. By day, he runs a tour company called Uniquely Charleston Tours,giving historical and civil rights tours of the city. Sometimes, his tours include the historic Charleston UU church. Garbarini discovered a mason who worked with historic bricks: Rodney Prioleau is also the historic mason at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Modern cement destroys old bricks, so Prioleau used Colonial techniques to build the memorial.
The top of the memorial is decorated with oyster shells, reflecting a Gullah tradition of marking burial sites with shells. The Gullah people are descendants of African slaves who live in the coastal South.
Garbarini also engaged a blacksmith to fashion the bird sculpture for the front of the memorial.
On September 22, the congregation will hold a day of reflection, prayer, and song to dedicate the memorial and to remember the slaves who built their sanctuary. Members of the larger community are also invited, and the church is considering making “Sankofa Sunday” an annual event.
"We’re acknowledging the efforts of those people who had no choice about what they were doing or where they were," said Garbarini.
He believes the monument is unique. “While there are monuments to slavery, there is nothing that memorializes what they did with their own artifacts,” Garbarini said. “This is made from materials that the enslaved made with their own hands.”
Correction 8.20.13: An earlier version of this story incompletely identified the source of the sankofa symbol, which originated with the Akan people in what is now Ghana in West Africa.