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Chapel where Pinckney preached now tells Black church story

A tiny church in Port Royal — where former state senator and pastor Clementa Pinckney once preached —has been restored and reopened as a public interpretive center that highlights the town’s role in the nation’s history and Pinckney’s story as well.

It’s a good match. Pickney preached at Porter’s Chapel for two years, from 1996-98, before moving on and becoming a prominent political and religious leader in South Carolina.

In honor of Pinckney, Porter’s Chapel has a new name — Pinckney Porter’s Chapel.

“The legacy continues,” Jennifer Pinckney of Columbia, Pinckney’s widow, said during a dedication of the church at Naval Heritage Park last week, which was attended by family and friends and Port Royal leaders and residents.

It was June 17, 2015, when Dylann Roof shot and killed Pinckney, along with eight others, during a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015. He was 41.

Although Pinckney is gone, Port Royal Mayor Joe DeVito said, his legacy of leadership and love endures.

The Town of Port Royal, DeVito said, led the effort to rebuild the chapel, and decided to rename it Pinckney Porter’s Chapel in honor of Pinckney, a native of Beaufort, because of his history with the Port Royal church.

The church, which had been located at the corner of Old Shell Road and 16th Street, was moved to Naval Heritage Park in 2019 and is now staffed by a National Park Service Ranger following a $300,000 restoration that included a $240,000 allocation of accommodation taxes from Beaufort County. The exhibits are more recent, and the dedication included Jennifer Pinckney cutting a ribbon to officially open the interpretive center.

Besides the interpretive displays inside, the church is also home base for tours of historic Camp Saxton, which was established to train Black soldiers in 1862.

DeVito called the restoration and new purpose for the old church a “fantastic” example of cooperation among a lot of people and agencies.

Family members who attended the dedication, such as proud father John Pinckney, said they were honored by the gesture.

“’Come on, Dad, we got to go!’” John Pinckney remembers his son telling him on Sundays when he was just 13 and already preaching at area churches.

There are “horrible things” happening in the world, said Pinckney’s 18-year-old daughter, Eliana, but today, she added, is a “happy day.”

“I thank you,” Eliana told the crowd, “and I appreciate you.”

Jennifer Pinckney, of Columbia, said it is an honor to her when people recognize what her husband stood for. Since his death, many people have come forth and shared ways in which they had been helped by Clementa, she added, which has amazed her.

“He was a gentle giant,” said Jennifer Pinckney, adding that the family is still grieving.

Porter’s Chapel, built by freed slaves, remained an active church until 2004.

Now it tells the stories of the people of Port Royal and their role in emancipation, reconstruction and the Black church. People like Pinckney.

“It was a story that for a long time was overlooked,” says Richard Condon, a ranger with the National Park Service who worked on the exhibits with the help of students at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

In 1862, Camp Saxton was established on the old Smith Plantation on Port Royal Island. It was the home of the 1st South Carolina Infantry, which was later renamed the 33rd United States Colored Troops. Included in the displays is the likeness of Sgt. Prince Rivers in his soldier’s uniform, which was assembled using photographs.

On Jan. 1, 1863, in a stand of oak trees, the Emancipation Proclamation was read to the men of the 1st South Carolina Infantry, along with hundreds of other formerly enslaved people. It was one of the largest public gatherings for a reading and celebration of the proclamation in the South. Soldiers were presented with a flag embroidered with “The Year of Jubilee Has Come!”

Some residents still active in Port Royal today, Condon said, can trace their roots directly to Camp Saxton.

The section on Clementa Pinckney notes that he became a pastor at 18, and that he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1996 and the state Senate in 2004. He oversaw 17 churches in the area, including Porter’s Chapel.

“It’s a wonderful tribute to Sen. Pinckney — but also our history,” said Anita Stevenson Magwood of Marion, S.C., Pinckney’s cousin, pausing before the photographs of a smiling Pinckney and accompanying copy, which notes that Pickney, in his final weeks, advocated for new laws requiring police officers to wear body cameras to prevent abuses such as the 2105 fatal shooting by a police officer of Walter Scott in Charleston.

“I think every young person should come,” Magwood added.

Jennifer Pinckney — Pinckney’s “girlfriend” at the time — remembers the drives she and Clementa made from Columbia to the Porter’s Chapel, when Pinckney used to talk about the Lowcountry’s impressive landscape and history. At the time, he was 23, and some members of the congregation doubted his abilities. But Pinckney, his wife said, was a teacher and a leader, even then.

Porter’s Chapel traces its roots to Parris Island and was brought to Port Royal in 1901, according to church lore.

Condon, the park ranger, expects the chapel to get more visitors with the addition of the exhibits and the new name.

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