At the center of this year’s Legacy Day celebration, scheduled for August 17, is a recognition of the role of African-American churches in the history and culture of Kent County. A joint project of the Kent County Historical Society and Sumner Hall, Legacy Day is in its sixth year of celebrating the role of African-Americans in the community. Drawing attendees from a wide area, Legacy Day has become an important part of Chestertown’s cultural landscape.
While the most visible part of the festivities, for many attendees, is the parade and block party Saturday evening, Legacy Day incorporates a lot more, including a great deal of research into the history of Kent County. This year’s research was even more extensive than usual, documenting the history of all the African American churches that were founded more than 125 years ago, a total of 24, of which 16 are still actively holding services.
As lead researcher Bill Leary notes in an article summarizing the research, the historic African American churches were all of the Methodist denomination. This is because, as Leary says, “No other religious group treated African Americans better. Early Methodists worked hard to make black converts and spoke out clearly against slavery.” Also, with the church’s emphasis on conversion rather than the formal study of church doctrine, Methodism made itself accessible to the poor and uneducated of all races.
Eleven of the historic churches were founded in the years before the end of slavery, and another eight in the years immediately following the Civil War, when hopes for reconstruction and racial equality were high.
Leary notes that despite welcoming black worshipers, the early Methodist churches were not free of discrimination. African Americans were required to sit in the back of the church, or in the gallery, and at camp meetings, they were not allowed to sit in front of the speakers’ platforms. Because of this, a movement arose to establish independent churches for black Methodists. In 1813, Peter Spencer, born a slave in Kent County, founded the Union Church of Africans in Wilmington, Delaware. Three years later, the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church was founded by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen. Other black Methodists, including many of those in Kent County, remained within the main body of the church. However, by 1864, they were seeking more control over the governance of their own churches, leading to the foundation of the Delaware Annual Conference. This group, including churches in New York City, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and the Delmarva peninsula, remained independent of the United Methodist Church as a whole until 1965.
Probably the earliest African-American church in Kent County was Zion Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in Chestertown before 1828 when a property transfer document refers to it as already standing on a plot on Princess (now Queen) Street. Moved and rebuilt several times, the church was renamed in 1867 to honor Bishop Edmund Janes, whose name it bears today. The present structure at the corner of Cross and Cannon Streets was built in 1914 after a fire destroyed much of downtown Chestertown. In its long history, it has been the spiritual home of many prominent citizens, including 19th-century businessmen William Perkins and James Jones, both trustees of the church.
Chestertown’s other historic black church is Bethel A.M.E. Church, founded sometime before 1872. The church trustees bought land at the corner of Kent and Calvert Streets in 1878, where the congregation met until 1910 when a new church was built on College Avenue. The church has been a center for the fight for equal rights, with its pastor Rev. Frederick Jones Sr. among the founders of the local NAACP chapter. Rev. Jones also welcomed the Freedom Riders to Kent County in 1962. More recently, Bethel has hosted the monthly meetings of the Diversity Dialogue Group.
Other Kent County churches still holding services are Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Pomona, founded in 1849; Asbury-John Wesley United Methodist Church in Millington, from before 1855; Graves Chapel Union American Methodist Episcopal Church, Millington, reportedly founded by and named for a veteran of the U.S. Colored Infantry in the Civil War; and Wesley Chapel of Love United Methodist Church in Sassafras, incorporated in 1893 and merged with two other congregations in 2004.
Also active in the modern era are Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church of Melitota, founded before 1860, when it appears on a map of the county; the New Christian Chapel of Love in Big Woods, founded sometime before 1888 as Fountain United Methodist Church; Mt. Olive A.M.E. Church of Butlertown, built in 1898 but likely founded much earlier; and St. George United Methodist Church of Worton Point, which is adjacent to the historic African American schoolhouse, built in 1890 and purchased by the church in 1958.
Union United Methodist Church in Coleman’s Corner was probably built in 1865 or 1866, shortly after Emancipation. Asbury United Methodist Church of Georgetown traces its origins to 1863 when local black residents began holding services in the local school. It is named for its first pastor, Rev. Asbury Grinnage. Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church, located on the north side of Fairlee, purchased land for a church in 1885. Its present building dates to 1908.
Aaron Chapel United Methodist Church of Rock Hall originated when the local white church donated its chapel, which it no longer needed, to the free black community in 1854. Holy Trinity A.M.E. Church of Edesville erected its first church building in 1885, but there is evidence that the local African-American community was holding church services at least 20 years earlier when it built a school for black children shortly after Emancipation.
Another nine churches built more than 125 years ago are no longer holding services, and in many cases, the buildings are in ruins. Leary’s history, which will be available at the Historical Society during the month of August, gives details on all 24 of the churches, including the names of their pastors, prominent members of their congregations, and other historical information. There will also be an exhibit including artifacts from several of the churches, first at the Historical Society and later at Sumner Hall.
Members of the existing churches have been invited to take part in the Legacy Day celebrations, including a concert of old-time gospel music Aug. 10 at Bethel Church, and the parade Aug. 17.
The full Legacy Day schedule:
Saturday, August 10:
2:00 pm, at Bethel AME Church – Old Time Gospel Music presented by local churches and Reception for Honorees
Saturday, August 17:
10:00 am, at Chestertown Public Library – Genealogy Workshop
11:00 am – 4:00 pm, at Sumner Hall – Stories and Snacks for the Young and Young at Heart
12:00 pm – 6:00 pm, at Chestertown RiverArts – Special Legacy Day Exhibit
2:00 pm, at Bethel AME Church – Gospel Concert by Rev. Dr. Anthony Brown
5:00 pm – Parade Down High Street, with MC Yvette Hynson (Lady Praise)
6:00 pm – 10:00 pm – Block Party on High Street featuring Music by Jasper Hackett with Quiet Fire — the band that played the first Legacy Day in 2014
The evening festivities include food and drinks booths and a dance contest.
Photos courtesy of Kent County Historical Society.