Only on 12: Contractor sues historic Aiken Co. church

News 12 at 11 o'clock / Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012

GRANITEVILLE, S.C. -- Jacksonville Missionary Baptist Church is 138 years old. It’s a church built by the descendants of slaves.

Today, it still sits off a quiet Chalkbed Road in Graniteville. But soon, it may have to close its doors for good. The church is being sued for breach of contract.

"What is happening right now, the church is having to give an explanation why they are being brought into a suit about property that they own and is trying to protect,” said Rev. Ralph Holloway.

Rev. Holloway says the church signed what he says was an agreement with G.L. Williams & Daughter Trucking Inc. back in 2002, which allowed the contractor to mine clay sand from a bluff on church property.

But as more and more clay was removed, Holloway says trucks got closer and closer to a cemetery behind the church. He says the cemetery contains many marked graves dating back before the Civil War. They believe several Civil War soldiers are buried behind the church and even a soldier who fought in the American Revolution. He says workers also worked on Saturdays.

"And at one point, we had a funeral, and he was out there with all his trucks with all the dust and so forth going on. And the following Saturday, he was asked, peacefully, if he would not do that,” Holloway said.

He says, however, work continued. Finally, the church sent a letter to Williams to cease and desist. Now, Williams is suing the church to reclaim damages his business incurred when the church broke what his lawyer says was a contract.

"We would be devastated. If this lawsuit affects the church, we would be just devastated. We'll be set back 138 years,” said the reverend, speculating that his church may even be forced to close for good.

He and his lawyer, Doug Truslow, say the church did have reason to break the agreement that they say wasn't a legally-binding contract. They also point out that the work didn't meet several South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control regulations.

They also fear that unmarked graves may have been dug up as a result of the work, as the workers got only yards away from the cemetery.

"Who knows. On the top of that hill, like I said in court, a family member could just say, 'I'm going to put him right here.' Right here could be 10 feet from the church. I don't know,” Holloway said.

That's what Clarke McCants, from the Nance, McCants & Massey Law Firm in Aiken, emphasized. He said even though there’s a lot of speculation, there’s no evidence that suggests bodies were exhumed from the cemetery.

Wednesday marked the first day of witness testimony. The civil case will resume Thursday morning at the Aiken County Courthouse.

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