NICHOLS -- Thedus Mayo did not believe what she was reading.
She was holding an old Horry County deed for the property of High Hill Baptist Church, a black congregation near Nichols that dates to the late 1860s. Nobody knew who donated the land where the church stands today.
The answer was in her hands. She read the deed again, using a magnifying glass to be sure the name of her great-grandfather Louis Bullock was still there.
"I didn't even know what I had until the middle of the night," said Mayo, who was studying a copy of the deed she brought home on a recent visit to the county's archives.
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Now the congregation wants national recognition for the church, which some say is the oldest black church operating in the county. It was added to the Horry County Historic Property Register April 22, according to Adam Emrick, a senior planner with the county.
He says little is known about the county's black community after slaves were freed at the end of the Civil War in 1865. Recognizing the church, he said, could help the county's history buffs learn more.
"We can increase the awareness of the African-American community of historic preservation," he said. "I don't know what other sites are out there."
Joel Carter, the chairman of the architectural board, said the congregation's age would make it a good candidate for local recognition. He said the current building, built in 1957, meets the 50-year age requirement for the register.
Mayo was born in Horry County and attended the church as a child, but she said she does not remember much. Many of the older members remember the church's earlier days, Mayo said, but nobody has written anything on the church's history.
"There is a rich history in that community and everybody knows it. But nobody has compiled it," said Mayo, who wants to write a book about the community. "Someone has got to create that, so it might as well be me."
Bullock, her great-grandfather, was a slave in Horry County in the 1830s. After the Civil War he purchased some land near Nichols and eventually donated some property to build the church.
Over the years, other Baptist congregations were formed nearby out of High Hill Baptist Church, members said. Today, the congregation is about 100 people, said pastor B. Hercules Davis, the church's first female pastor.
On a warm Sunday morning, Davis stood at a wooden lectern dressed in robes, dabbing sweat from her face during her sermon. The air conditioning was off for this service, which lasted about an hour and a half.
"When you pray, don't forget to pray in the name of Jesus," Davis told the congregation. Her sermon was punctuated at intervals by music from tambourines and a keyboard.
The current church building, surrounded by small cemeteries, is a white-stuccoed building, with a cross hanging over a four-columned portico and double doors at the entrance. Inside, red carpet lines the floor and red cushions rest on the wooden pews.
But the church was not always that nice, said Ester Lenepope, 76, who has been going to services at the church her entire life.
The previous building, torn down after the new church was built, was a spartan structure made of wood.
Logs had to be collected from the surrounding forest to feed a furnace that provided heat in the main sanctuary. If someone needed to go to the bathroom, they had to go outside, she said.
As a child, she walked past farmers -- drudging through mud as they plowed the fields -- to the elementary school that was also held at the church. The school, the first in the area, moved out of the church when another resident donated land in the late 1930s.
Whenever there was a wedding or funeral, a bell posted outside the old church building would be rung. Lenepope remembers that every family would bring food for the occasion.
High Hill Baptist Church was one of many black churches founded throughout the South after the Civil War, said Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who specializes in American religious history.
Some black churches were formed in Georgia and South Carolina in the 1770s.
But after several slave rebellions occurred in the early 1800s, whites broke up the churches, fearing the congregations would organize further revolts.
"Whites take for granted the independence to build churches, and for blacks, this was part of the achievements of emancipation," Maffly-Kipp said.
"Simply being able to meet separately and being able to own buildings, that was something they never took for granted."