Praise houses were structures originally built during Slavery on plantations by enslaved Black people confined there. Praise houses served as a place to worship and a safe space to gather and share stories.
The design of praise houses was generally small, one-room structures made of wood, averaging about 10 feet by 15 feet, that fit no more than 25 to 30 people at a time. Inside the praise house was wooden benches for seating and a lectern or stand at the front of the room for the preacher. The houses were purposely kept small to avoid drawing a plantation owner’s attention. Plantation owners feared large gatherings of their enslaved Black populace, thinking slave insurrections might result.
Black praise house congregants used prayer, songs, and a method of movement (or dance) called Ring Shout to worship God in their own way. There were no instruments in the praise house, only feet stomping and hand-clapping, which relate to West African clapping and drumming traditions.
After Emancipation and the enslaved population were declared free, praise houses remained an important religious, social, and fraternal community institutions.
Today there are efforts to locate and restore the old praise house structures for historical purposes.
Click here to view the story of a lauded Praise House singer, Deacon James Garfield Smalls of St. Helena Island.
Jazz began in the United States in the late 1800s by African-American musicians. Its rhythmic roots come from West African polyrhythms. New Orleans is known as the birthplace of jazz, though this art form was already being played in many cities around the country when it began. Over the years, jazz evolved from African and European musical traditions in many different ways and sounds, becoming popular in the 1920s. Jazz grew out of the blues and ragtime and developed into the following styles: traditional/New Orleans, swing/big band, modern/bebop, hard bop, avant-garde, fusion, and many different post-modern styles. Dizzy Gillespie was a trumpet player from Cheraw, South Carolina and the founder of bebop.
The sound of jazz includes basic elements of music—melody, harmony, pulse, rhythm, and timbre. But jazz has a special sound of its own. What makes it different from other music are its blue notes, call and response patterns, syncopation, riffs, scats, and, especially, improvisation.
Jazz musicians play many kinds of instruments such as brass (trumpets and trombones), woodwind (saxophones and clarinets), and percussion instruments (drums and piano). A rhythm section is a group of musicians who play the piano, bass, drums and sometimes the guitar. They are responsible for keeping the pulse, rhythm, and harmony of the entire band. One of the most famous rhythm sections in jazz were players in the Count Basie Band. One of them was Freddie Green, a guitarist from Charleston, South Carolina, who played in Basie’s band for nearly fifty years.
JENKINS ORPHANAGE BANDS
Did you know there were many black musicians from South Carolina who helped create JAZZ? It’s true! Many of them were kids who grew up in the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston, South Carolina. A minister named Reverend Daniel Jenkins, who was born enslaved, started the orphanage in 1891 after he saw homeless kids trying to keep warm one December night. He took them to his church and his congregation said, “Let’s start an orphanage so these kids can have a home.” They did. They even taught the kids to play instruments like the trumpet and the trombone to raise money for the orphanage. These kids practiced and practiced until they were so good that there were five Jenkins Orphanage Bands! They played all over the country and even in England. When they got older, many great jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Count Basie hired them to play in their big bands in New York. Some of their names were Jabbo Smith, Cat Anderson, Rufus “Speedy” Jones, and Tommy Benford. They even helped create the dance called “The Charleston” that everybody danced all over the world in the 1920s. So, let’s thank Reverend Jenkins for all he did. He loved and cared for over 5,000 orphans at the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston, and so many of them helped create jazz.
Gospel music is music based primarily on the Protestant Christian faith that features lyrics from the Bible, strong harmonies, and melodic and rhythmic motifs rooted in Negro spirituals, jazz, and the blues. A strong feature in gospel music is call and response, where a lead singer offers a word or phrase and the choir/congregation responds to it with another word or phrase. Call and response is a carryover from slavery, particularly as this is how most preachers could relay scriptures from the Bible to a mostly illiterate congregation.
During the civil rights movement, many gospel singers lent their voices to the cause. Performers such as Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and the Staples Singers, used their gospel roots to share the struggles of Black America while putting forth messages of hope and perseverance.
Today, gospel music has many subgenres, including traditional, contemporary, and even hip-hop. In fact, some gospel singers have mainstream success, such as Kirk Franklin, Yolanda Adams, and Mary. The message of hope and perseverance has the ability to resonate with all people, whether they are Christian or not. Gospel music is one of the most effective means to share that message with the world.
Redemption and Resurrection Through Music
Music is an integral part of the human experience. For enslaved Africans and their descendants, music became a source for sharing information, maintaining morale, and even providing glimpses of joy in a difficult existence. Certain songs, now commonly called “Negro Spirituals,” were away for the enslaved to learn Bible stories that were then composed into songs and used to pass messages about secret meetings or routes for escaping north. These songs were also used to share parables of life and to sustain hope in often hopeless situations. Post-slavery, music continued to be a source of information, morale, and joy. However, when legal Segregation continued to bar Black Americans from access to full citizenship in the first half of the twentieth century, music became a rallying cry amid protests against injustice and demonstrations for equality. In fact, many sacred songs and Negro Spirituals were resurrected and repurposed as protest music to highlight the plight of Black Americans and bring about justice and access for all. Hymns such as “We Shall Overcome” and spirituals such as “No More Auction Block for Me” reaffirmed people’s willingness to fight for their rights and resist unfair treatment.
The massacre of nine people at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015 was a dark day for the state of South Carolina and the country as a whole. Yet out of that darkness was a willingness for people to come together to celebrate the lives of state senator Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, and Daniel Simmons, Sr. as well as to really think about the kind of country in which we would like to live. President Barack Obama gave a eulogy at Senator Pinckney’s funeral that ended with him singing “Amazing Grace,” a Christian hymn penned by English slaver and clergyman John Newton. The song’s themes of grace and forgiveness provided a fitting end to Senator Pinckney’s home-going while also uniting the congregants in the fellowship of hope out of a trying time.
Music has always and will continue to be a motivating force in the pursuit of equality and justice as well as an affirmation of our humanity.