SCBHB Profile: Deacon James Garfield Smalls

Deacon James Garfield Smalls of St. Helena, South Carolina, is an important historical and cultural icon. At 98 years old, Deacon Smalls is a living walking archive of the many sacred songs—known as Gullah Spirituals—that were sung in Lowcountry praise houses. Smalls fondly remembers staying with his grandmother, who instilled in him the importance of praise house services.

As a young man, Deacon Smalls sang in various community choirs and later took on leadership roles in these musical units.He has been a deacon for 50 years at Bethesda Christian Fellowship Church on St. Helena Island. Deacon Smalls also served in the military during World War II, married and raised a family, worked civil service jobs, and managed a farm.

Deacon Smalls lives a life of dedication to community and exemplifies the dignity and expressive power of sacred music. He hopes his songs and inspirational words educate younger generations and challenge them to learn about their rich history.

Recently, Deacon Smalls was honored by the South Carolina Arts Commission, the governor, and the state legislature. He was cited as one of the most important active Gullah Geechee singers and cultural ambassadors.

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