A Brief History - Moving Star Hall
Called a “blessing,” a “miracle,” and “history,” by those who know it well, Moving Star Hall is a praise house located on Johns Island, South Carolina. The one room wood structure stands as a physical testimony to Gullah Geechee spirituality and collective life on the island.
Now listed on the National Register for Historic Places, members of a mutual aid burial society named Moving Star established the Hall around 1917.
Moving Star Hall is where members commune with The Lord and with each other. It is a small space with an enormous role in the community and culture.
Moving Star Hall at a glanceInternational African American Museum
Moving Star Hall
Moving Star Hall is located along a bend in River Road— surrounded by older wooden homes, schools, and Field’s Farm. It’s across from Field’s Store and less than a mile from the Progressive Club. Elders now say that Moving Star Hall has simply always been.
Anna Fields recalled, “When I was born, this place was here…And when I got older I asked my mother ‘how old is this place? And she said ‘when I was born—1911—, this place was here.”
Way back, the community pooled their resources and talents to purchase the land and materials and to build the praise house.
It has withstood the changing of time and the sometimes unfavorable Sea Island weather. Moving Star Hall is as unwavering as the faith of members who also weather life’s metaphorical storms.
At Moving Star Hall, praising The Lord was done mostly through a mix of shouting, praying, testifying, and singing. Its members described worship as a “full body praise” by “spirit-filled” people.
According to Cheryl Glover, it’s “whatever that inner thing is that you can grab onto” that is being expressed and restored.
Unable to be fully articulated in words, the images, video, and audio recordings here get closer to representing it. Still, it is the feeling of electric hallelujah that connects each soul to one another and to God. Gerald Mackey says, “you can feel that freedom.”
Moving Star Hall’s close quarters make for an intimate worship experience. And with the Johns Island heat, sweat would begin to pour as The Spirit moved easily through such a small space. Capped with a tin roof, not much light came in from the windows.
The interior was lined with small backless wood benches arranged on a wood floor perfect for stomping and shouting.
But giving God the glory couldn’t be contained and sometimes spilled outside where people would also gather. New Years Watch Night services were especially memorable when members pray the new year in.
The Moving Star Hall Singers were born of Moving Star Hall and eventually became ambassadors for Gullah Geechee culture.
With their album and re-releases and performances at a number of “folk festivals,” their style of song and praise reached the rest of the country and different parts of the world.
The singers performed spirituals, hymns, and gospel music with soul stirring selections like “You Got to Move,” “Jesus Knows All About My Struggles,” and “Remember Me” in their repertoire.
The Moving Star Hall Singers’ quintessential sound highlighted their skillful blending of voices. Their harmonies were punctuated with adlibs.
The group used no instruments—only the signature percussive blend of stomping, clapping, and patting hands. There was no need for formal training, the singers’ coming together was innate, their arrangements were divine.
Loretta Stanely is the last living original member of Moving Star Hall Singers. She carries on the legacy of the family members who also comprised the group which included her mother, Janie Hunter, and her uncle Benjamin Bligen.
Moving Star Hall spiritualityInternational African American Museum
Praise Houses & Gullah Geechee Spirituality
Praise houses are a physical expression of Gullah Geechee spirituality. The emphasis on a collective experience of a Higher Power over an individual encounter was central to the various African belief systems that enslaved ancestors fused and remixed with Christianity.
Dating back to at least the mid-1800s, praise houses also provided respite from white oppression during slavery and the eras that followed. It was essential to have a gathering place to meet with other worshippers where your soul would be fed.
Recognizing that few earthly rewards came from their struggles, pain, and difficult labor, their belief systems were otherworldly, joyful, and affirming. Generations later, the hardships of Black life still required the spiritual armor that the praise house helped fortify.
Historically, Moving Star Hall was not the only praise house in the area, but it is the one that remains.
Unlike a church service in which the pastor’s sermon is the climax, the praise house’s structure of worship revolves around prayer, testimony, and singing and relies on the participation of everyone in attendance.
Praise houses brought together worshippers of all denominations and regardless of church affiliation. Members could also maintain membership to a church and still come for prayer meetings and praise house-style worship.
In addition to their spiritual importance, praise houses were also social institutions. For small and close knit communities like Johns Island, praise houses facilitated the exchange of ideas, goods, and talents.
Secret societies, burial associations, social clubs, and other groups held meetings at the praise house.
When bartering was common, the praise house centralized those arrangements. They were even places where grievances between community members were aired.
Elders arbitrated justice without the involvement of the white institutions like the police and courts. Praise houses were also the setting for political organizing against white violence and injustice.
Moving Star Hall was multigenerational, made up of several members of several families at any given time. Therefore, Moving Star Hall not only embodies spirituality and community, it is also a living representation of family history for many people in the surrounding area.
Genealogies here run deep. Memories are kept through the songs and the life lessons shared by those who have long passed away but whose spirits fill the space.
Moving Star Hall todayInternational African American Museum
Moving Star Hall Today
The idea of progress is a contentious one. On the one hand, change is inevitable and progress is considered change in the right direction. But on the other hand, “progress” has meant that the Johns Island community is less isolated.
Family members move away. People are drawn to bigger churches or have stopped worshiping collectively altogether. As these shifts occur, the distinct style of praise of Moving Star Hall may fade away.
Today the congregation meets in Moving Star Hall, which maintains the spiritual charge of the space. Efforts like this online exhibit seek to honor this history and culture.
Moreover it is the community members who remember the people and the praise that defined Moving Star Hall that ensure that its legacy lives on.
Exhibit pinsInternational African American Museum
Exhibit items - Pins
Ledger usedInternational African American Museum
Exhibit items - Ledger
HornsInternational African American Museum
Exhibit items - Horn
Oral History: Cheryl Glover
Oral History: Mother Ruth Givens
Oral History: Anna Fields White
Oral History: Cynthia & Thelma
Oral History: Abe & Gerald
Oral History: Loretta Stanley & Christina McNeil
“Ethnographic Analogy, Archaeology, and the African Diaspora: Perspectives from a Tenant Community” (2004) By Kenneth L. Brown in Historical Archeology. He extensively cites A Peculiar People: Slave Religion and Community-Culture among the Gullahs (1988) by Margaret Creel
“Singing and Shouting in Moving Star Hall” (1995) by Guy and Candie Carawan in Black Music Research Journal
Exhibition Curated by James Bartlett
Exhibition Coordinated by Shante’ Cozier
Exhibition Essay by LaShaya Howie
Exhibition Design by Rolake Ojo
Film by Draulhaus
Photography by Joshua Parks
Special Thanks to IAAM Curatorial Team, Martina Morale, Suzanne DiBella and Matthew Stevenson
Additional thanks to Moving Star Hall Congregation