Religious Institutions

Amazing Grace, field recording of performance by the Pulaski Prayer Society, circa 1941 John Work III Collection, Center for Popular Music, MTSU. Full Record.

The churches, with their significant roles in religion, education, politics, music, and ethnic identity, served as the cultural hearts of rural black communities.  Their primacy in the community was further reflected in that other key early institutions (cemeteries, schools, fraternal lodges, and African-American commercial enterprises such as barber shops and funeral homes) either stood on the church lot or on other immediately adjoining properties.

The early churches of the 1860s were commonly first located where African Americans expected to have a degree of safety and freedom.  Many stood on the outskirts of the large “contraband camps” created by the federal government to shelter and control the thousands of freedmen and freedwomen who rushed to federal encampments from 1862 to 1865. Freedmen and freedwomen created many churches within the protective view of occupation forces.  At Jonesboro, the seat of pro-Union Washington County, residents established the early Jonesboro African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church directly parallel to the railroad tracks, where federal troops were stationed. At Clarksville, where the federal army occupied and enlarged an earlier Confederate fort, a large black community called New Providence, with several extant churches, developed adjacent to the fort from 1862 to 1870, by which time most occupation forces had left the state.

In other towns, blacks established early churches on a mere sliver of space in the local townscape.  Sometimes this was due to the influence of a missionary group or a specific church.  In other cases, whites donated or sold blacks poor land at a poor location—like at the local cemetery on the margins of town.  On 15 May 1869, for instance, Alexandria town officials deeded a plot of three acres for a cemetery, church, and school to a group of African-American trustees and the Methodist church.   More likely, the town’s transfer of this largely worthless property of limestone outcroppings and cedar breaks on top of a prominent hill overlooking the village placed it in compliance with recently approved state laws commanding counties to create public schools for whites and blacks. The church, later known as the Seay Chapel Methodist Church, remained active until the late 1990s. One of the earliest Tennessee rural black church buildings--Pikeville AME Zion Church in Bledsoe County, circa 1870--also stands on the outskirts of white villages.  Also established after the 1869 state law requiring funding for African-American education, it is a plain, unpretentious building where form and function took precedence over architectural style. With the rural African-American church, the form is much more important than its style. Another example is the circa 1920 Beth Salem Presbyterian Church in McMinn County.  A small frame building with a plain gable front entrance, it has an unadorned, yet dignified appearance.  That the building served on the same spot for two generations as a church underscores its resiliency while its use today as a ceremonial setting for annual African-American homecomings indicates both its resiliency and adaptability.

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See more images of African American churches in the Southern Places collection.

Amazing Grace, performed by the Pulaski Prayer Society, recorded by John Work, III. Full item record.

Hold to God's Unchanging Hand, performance by Free Hill Church of Christ congregation. Full Item Record.

Walk Around in Dry Bones, performance by the Fairfield Four. Full Item Record.