Order of the Palmetto awarded to steward of ‘racial reconciliation, unity and knowledge’
One Pickens County woman received the honor for being a steward of knowledge by preserving land associated with one of the most egregious chapters in U.S. history.
GREENVILLE, S.C. (FOX Carolina) - The Order of the Palmetto is the highest civilian honor awarded to South Carolinians who demonstrate achievement, service and contributions of statewide or national significance.
And on Thursday, one Pickens County woman received the honor for being a steward of knowledge by preserving land associated with one of the most egregious chapters in U.S. history.
Founded in Pickens County in 1865, Soapstone Church, it’s one room schoolhouse, and its cemetery were built on six-acres of land by freed slaves who used the grounds as a community for empowerment and strength.
“It taught me that you had to get an education,” said Mable Owens Clarke, Order of the Palmetto recipient. “I am not limited by my past.”
Clarke was born on the land in 1944. And acknowledging and preserving the legacy of slavery is what she, a sixth-generation steward of Soapstone, did.
“Because no one gave those slaves the dignity that they deserved,” Clarke said.
For decades Soapstone, and similar Black communities thrived, at the same time resentment from the Ku Klux Klan grew, and the church was burned to the ground in 1967.
“It was very painful,” Clarke said.
But Clarke says man can’t destroy what’s ordained to be protected.
“God had a victory for soapstone,” Clarke said.
By 1968, the doors of the church that stand there now are open. And the public is welcome to attend and learn.
Clarke was awarded the Order of the Palmetto, conferred by the Governor of South Carolina for tirelessly working on a conservation easement to protect the land that Soapstone stands on, and for being a steward of racial reconciliation, unity and knowledge. The ceremony at Furman University was presented by Rep. Chandra E. Dillard, District 23 (Greenville County); Richard W. Riley, former Gov. of South Carolina, and U.S. Secretary of Education; and David H. Wilkins, former SC House of Representatives speaker, and U.S. Ambassador to Canada.
“The site will be there forever,” said Carlton Owen, Greenville County Historic and Natural Resources Trust chair. “There will not be a threat to development for other uses, so the historical story of 600 freed slaves that went to Pickens County and started that church in 1865 will be forever a part of American history.”
Clarke also joins others who hope Soapstone will further educate the public on the resilience, strength, skill and contributions from slaves who had a foundational role in South Carolina’s growth and economy.
“I think they’re still trying to get there. We’re not where we should be,” Clarke said.
“I would like to see schools teach everything that has happened, whether the good, bad or indifferent. because it has happened and we need to learn from it,” added Bo Ferguson, Order of the Palmetto ceremony attendee.
A lingering legacy in Pickens County that’s awakened a following.
“It’s important to all of us, to learn all of our local history and to understand all of our history, and not just the history that we heard growing up,” said Nancy Kennedy, Furman University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute director. “Part of what developed our area of the world is that we had slavery. And it is so important for us to recognize that history and know the contributions that everyone made to this area.”
“When you come to Soapstone Church, you will leave differently than the way you came,” Clarke added.
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