Current Exhibit

Amazing Grace:

Historic African American Churches

of Kent County

 

This exhibit honors African American churches of Kent County by documenting briefly the history of the 24 earliest churches, all of which were founded at least 125 years ago. Eleven of these churches were founded by free blacks before the emancipation of their brethren in 1864. Eight others were founded in the hopeful days following the end of the Civil War when the national government was controlled by Republican politicians who defended black rights, such as President Ulysses S. Grant, Senator Charles Sumner (after whom Sumner Hall was named), and Maryland Representative Henry Winter Davis. Sixteen still hold services. All but six of the churches featured here were founded as Methodist Episcopal churches, which became United Methodist in 1965. The remainder includes four African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E) churches, one Union American Methodist Episcopal church, and one African Union Methodist Protestant church.

The appeal of Methodism to 19th century African Americans, both free and enslaved, is understandable. No other religious group treated African Americans better. Early Methodist ministers worked hard to make black converts and spoke out clearly against slavery. By stressing the conversion experience more than formal religious instruction, Methodism made itself more accessible to the poor and illiterate, both black and white. In the beginning, blacks and whites often worshipped together but not without racial discrimination. African Americans were restricted to the back of the church or the gallery during regular worship and had to sit behind the speaker’s platform at camp meetings. And there were virtually no black preachers; one exception was “Black Harry” Hozier, a celebrated orator who probably preached in Kent County.

These and other forms of discrimination soon produced efforts to establish independent black Methodist churches. The first truly independent black denomination, the Union Church of Africans, was founded in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1813 by Peter Spencer, who was born a slave in Kent County in 1782. In the mid-1860s Spencer’s church split into two rival denominations, the Union American Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Union Methodist Protestant Church. The most successful move for independence, headed by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, led to the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E) church in 1816.

Even those black Methodists who remained within the Methodist Episcopal Church (like most in Kent County) began to push for more control over their own affairs, particularly in the appointment of pastors. In 1864 this agitation led to the foundation of the Delaware Annual Conference, which comprised all African American American churches in New York City, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Delaware, and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia; it was not fully integrated into the United Methodist Church until 1965. This move also satisfied the desire of many whites for greater segregation in the affairs of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Rev. Patricia Bryant Harris (the first African American graduate of Chestertown High School in 1963) summed up the contradictory legacy of the Delaware Conference in this way: “The old Delaware Conference remains a source of pride for African American United Methodists, yet it also marked an era of shame for the church.

The African American churches of Kent County served the spiritual needs of their members throughout the hardships and not infrequent horrors of slavery, segregation, poverty, and war, They provided refuge in a hostile, white world, but they did much more. They furnished opportunities for the development of leadership skills that extended outside the church. Two early trustees of Janes Church, for example, William H. Perkins and James Jones were outstanding political, social, and economic leaders of the African American community of Chestertown. The political and social role of the church was reflected in the 1884 Minutes of the Delaware Conference reporting on the crusade against King Alcohol, “the enemy of loving homes, pure character, national peace, and human happiness”. A temperance law passes in Kent County in 1884, and “it was done by the vote of the color people”.

Churches were instrumental in early efforts to educate black children. Five schools founded in 1865 by the Baltimore Association for the Moral and Education Improvement of the Colored People were located in or associated with black churches: John Welsey in Millington, Fountain, James, Emmanuel, and Holy Trinity. Sponsoring such schools clearly took courage; in late 1865 John Wesley and Holy Trinity were burned to the ground by whites as opposed to their support of schools. Churches also cooperated with fraternal organizations, such as Mt. Hope Lodge No.2, Order of Truth and Light (across the street from Aaron Chapel) or the Embarrassed Relief Association of Coleman’s Corner, several of whose directors were trustees at Union. The church was the essential institution in 19th century American American communities of Kent County, and it retains a vital role today.