It doesn’t look like much from the outside. The collapsed white one-story building with boarded-up windows and a vine-covered front stoop at the end of Chestnut Street in Saluda has surely seen better days. A curious passerby might note the information neatly etched into the block on the side:
Missionary Baptist Church
Phebia Sullivan, Founder and Builder
A mention of Phebia — also styled as “Phoebia” and “Phoebe” — Sullivan around Saluda, especially among the older members of the community, may get a few smiles, warm looks of recognition, and recollections of a remarkable woman: a mother, a healer, a visionary, a successful entrepreneur, a memoirist, and an icon in Saluda’s African-American community whose extraordinary life and influence have recently spurred a new generation to celebrate her legacy.
In late 2018, the Saluda Community Land Trust acquired Sullivan’s Temple. Despite the building’s condition, the State Preservation Office and Preservation NC deemed it an important-enough structure to preserve. The Land Trust partnered with the Historic Saluda Committee to honor Phoebe Sullivan and Sullivan’s Temple by rebuilding the church and creating a memorial to her.
“We feel like Saluda has the opportunity to honor Phoebe Sullivan’s legacy similar to the way Tryon has been able to honor Nina Simone,” says Cindy Stephenson Tuttle, chair of the Historic Saluda Committee.
The child of former slaves, she was born Phebia Cheek Sullivan and grew up in Dials Township, Laurens County, South Carolina. She was raised in poverty and remained illiterate in the tumultuous landscape of Reconstruction. According to her memoir, From the Cradle to the Crutch, Sullivan had her first vision at nine years old (at what she would later call her “gingercake” birthday) of a man on a chariot driven by a snow-white horse, through a landscape steeped in Biblical symbolism. She awoke believing herself an instrument of the Lord, endowed with the divine touch, which she could use to soothe the souls and heal the bodies of her neighbors. Sullivan would go on to transcribe another work, The Book of Dreams and Visions. “She never did learn to read,” notes Elizabeth “Betsy” Burdett, former president and current board member of the Land Trust. “Her children and grandchildren read all her mail and wrote for her, which may be why they remember so much about her.”
At 19, Sullivan married a man so suspicious of her supernatural claims that she spent a decade “hiding her powers” and raising a growing family. A second vision during illness some ten years later led her to devise an elixir comprised of ten herbs and secret ingredients that Sullivan’s acolytes claimed could cure anything. When her husband Henry died in 1920, Phoebe brought her 16 children (she would later adopt many more) and her sanctified recipe to a small wooden shanty in Saluda.
Sullivan’s reputation grew among Saluda’s black population. Though the town was still highly segregated, the African-American community had grown rapidly since the railroad brought passenger trains, and with them a burgeoning new economy, up the famously steep Saluda grade in the last decades of the 19th century. These black Saludans had built a local culture peopled with railroad workers, laborers, domestic servants, and charismatic clergy leaders such as Rev. Lester Suber, who founded St. Matthews Baptist Church and presided over full-immersion baptisms in a pond he dug himself.
When news of Phoebe Sullivan’s miracle potion spread, residents took their earnings and queued up outside her door for a taste of heaven — or at least the promise of divine reprieve from their woes. It wasn’t long before people were coming from miles away, taking the train up the mountain and riding the bus around the winding Blue Ridge roads. The colors of the faces started to change, as well, as word of Sullivan’s miracle tonic miraculously crossed the often impenetrable race lines of the Jim Crow-era South.
But Sullivan was not without her detractors. Skeptics saw the stretchers — carrying the dangerously ill and busloads of congregants from as far away as Washington and New York — swarmed about the sprawling new home “Madame Sullivan” had built on the profits from her elixir. They called her a fraud, a swindler, and a dangerous practitioner of illegal medicine. Even after Sullivan increasingly funneled her proceeds toward civic causes, charities, and the erection of the church in 1948, “the local African-American community became somewhat divided based on personal preferences between Madame Sullivan’s new church and the more established St. Matthews Baptist Church,” notes Tuttle.
Still, with her son James Sullivan as pastor, the new Sullivan’s Temple Missionary Baptist Church flourished. It became a hub for Sullivan acolytes and regular churchgoers alike. Well into her eighties, Sullivan would hold grand celebrations on church grounds with food for all comers. The church itself became a hub of great gospel music, playing host to iconic performers, including Sam Cooke.
Martin Anderson, Historic Saluda Committee member and WNCW Music Director, writes, “Among the singers that are reported to have sung there is the legendary Mahalia Jackson … ‘The Queen of Gospel Music.’ The entire congregation would sing, including shape-note or ‘Do Re Mi’ songs, which were in the backs of the old hymnals and could be sung whether congregants could read music or not.”
Though Sullivan passed away in 1956, at age 101, her shadow loomed large over Saluda for decades afterward, via her many children and grandchildren, her unforgettable character, and the community she helped foster. When the passenger train ceased operation in 1968, Saluda’s black population began to dissipate, as regular work became more scarce. Neighbors moved away. Homes passed to new owners. Landmarks that once stood solid began to deteriorate.
Collective memory, however, proved stronger than the old roof on Sullivan’s Temple. The plans to rebuild the church and create a lasting memorial to Phoebe Sullivan are the result of both community persistence and a growing interest in Sullivan’s fascinating legacy
The specifics of the Sullivan’s Temple rebuild have yet to be hammered out. The project is still in its early stages, though enthusiasm is high. The Historic Saluda Committee has pledged proceeds from its June 1 Historic Home Tour toward the Temple restoration. “We are putting together a plan to include how people can get involved,” says Tuttle. “But certainly attending the home tour will help.”
Phoebe Sullivan believed herself a divine vessel, a keeper of mysteries and supernatural powers. And while it’s not possible to assess absolutely the efficacy of her tonic, it is true that she made the impossible happen: decades before the height of the Civil Rights era, she brought together people from all races and walks of life. She made a better life for herself and her family, becoming a leader at a time when women, especially black women, had little way to do so. And that seems like magic.
“He said unto me … ‘Put this message before the Public, not as a man-servant but as a Maidservant of God’ … I am a woman who tries to live according to God’s command and I cannot go as a woman pressing my way into a Congregation. I am not licensed to preach, only by the power of God. I am giving this message in a little history for man to read that he might know that God has dealt with me and has endowed me and not man. I am an uneducated woman truly gifted from a child.”
— from The Book of Dreams and Visions
A Word From Madame Sullivan’s Great Granddaughter
Sylvia Wilkins, a great granddaughter of Phoebe Sullivan, grew up in Saluda in Sullivan’s home, which they referred to as the “big house” (Wilkins now lives in Tryon). As a small child, she assisted in caring for her great grandmother during her final years. Sylvia was 13 when Sullivan died, and she remembers her as a kind woman who loved God. Sullivan asked only for a donation for her healings, recalls Wilkins, and in return, she took in the hungry and homeless year after year.
Wilkins says that even members of Saluda’s white community were accepting of Phoebe Sullivan’s work as a spiritual healer, including her signature tonic with its secret combination of herbs. Her popularity had a definite economic impact on the town’s business community, since visiting patrons spent money during their stay in the small mountain town.
Regarding the role of music at Sullivan’s Temple, Wilkins remembers that on Mother’s Day and the second Sunday of every August, the church was host to two Trailways buses carrying gospel performers from around the South and up the entire East Coast. Home-cooked food would be provided by the extended Sullivan family and their neighborhood friends. “Everyone had fun,” remembers Wilkins, although there were separate tables for white and black concertgoers. “That’s just the way it was back then,” she says.
Sullivan’s descendants want the temple restored in honor of their inspirational relative — but they also envision the Temple as a gathering place for weddings, family reunions, and open-air musical events to stage the messages of today’s gospel groups, black and white.
— Reported by Betsy Burdett