THE MOVING STAR


The structure pictured above may not look like much but it is, in fact, a National Historic Site and was once the heart of African-American social and religious life on Johns Island. Moving Star Hall, on River Road opposite Fields Farms, was built just after the First World War as a "praise house" for Black farming families, one of the few surviving such houses in the southeast. Before the Civil War, white plantation owners allowed their enslaved workers to build such houses at a time when few Blacks had the resources to build their own churches or were not allowed to travel to services elsewhere.



Moving Star Hall, c. 1920 (courtesy SC Picture Project)

Moving Star Hall, built by Blacks who managed to raise seven dollars to buy the materials, was a relative latecomer to the dozens of praise houses that once dotted Johns Island. It was built well after Emancipation and just as Johns Island was being connected to the mainland by the first Limehouse Bridge over the Stono River - a wood-and-creosote swing bridge that stood just to the west of today's soaring concrete affair.


Moving Star Hall was the headquarters of the Moving Star Association, a mutual benefit society that helped raise money for families who couldn't afford to treat their sick, who were struggling to feed themselves after a bad harvest, or who couldn't pay for funeral and burial services for their dead. Meetings of the Association were held three evenings a week. And on Sundays, rollicking, foot-stomping "ring shout" gospel singing filled the air. "That hall be full of people. Every Sunday," one surviving community member told historians in the 1960's. "It give me strength, spirit to carry on."


The Moving Star Singers, from left: Janie Hunter, Mary PInckney, Benjamin Bligen, Ruth Bligen and Loretta Stanley

The Hall became most famous for the Moving Star Hall Singers, who came to national attention during the folk music revival of the 1960's and who were first recorded by the musicologist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. The group performed all over the United States during the 1970's and 1980's, including at the White House, and recorded several albums of traditional African-American gospel music. The names of some of the singers still appear in street names along River Road in honor of Janie Hunter, Ruth and Benjamin Bligen, James Mackey, and other singers.

(View a brief clip of the Moving Star Singers here.)


By the late 1960's, much of the Association's social outreach had been transferred to the Progressive Club a mile or so south on River Road, founded by Esau Jenkins, who was a frequent preacher at Moving Star Hall. But gospel study classes and worship services still take place at Moving Star, with all invited. "Whether you are white, whether you are dark like myself," John Smalls said back in the 1970's, "or a different color, come in. Anytime you come, you is in. So sing, shout, get happy."



(** Quotes from "Ain't You Got A Right To The Tree Of Life?", Simon & Schuster, 1966)

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