Wesley Chapel A.M.E. Church—Georgetown’s oldest black church—celebrates 145 years of history
Reverend Richard Robert Haywood rode into Georgetown, swaying gently on Old Charley, his well-worn pony. He sat tall in his saddle, his frame slim but high for the size of his horse and awkwardly square. His gaze was set serious and straight; his ebony skin gleamed under the intense Texas sun. It was a blazing August day in 1869, only four years after the end of the Civil War and six years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Shaded by a wide-brimmed hat that was as broken down as Old Charley, Haywood, a man born into slavery in North Carolina, was determined to gain converts and bring freedom of worship to black people in the Austin area. He planted the seed which would grow into Georgetown’s first African American Church: Wesley Chapel A.M.E.
To appreciate the spiritual independence that Wesley Chapel A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) Church represents, one must first understand the social environment before the church was founded. Slavery came relatively late to Williamson County, in comparison to other regions of Texas: The first blacks in Georgetown came as slaves in the 1840s. By 1860, Williamson County had 891 enslaved people and 3,638 whites. Not much is known about the lives of these enslaved people, but historians of the area think that they worked on farms and ranches and as house slaves. They were not allowed to be educated, own property, rise to places of prominence in church or society, or live and worship independently. According to the Texas State Historical Association, some slave masters in Texas built churches for their slaves while others controlled, segregated, or disallowed worship. In the latter case, masters were afraid that enslaved people would hear the radical message of the Gospel that all people can receive salvation. If slaves began to believe that they were equal to their masters in their eligibility for salvation, they might come to believe that they otherwise were equal to their masters, threatening slave owners’ control.
A Church Is Born
The African Methodist Episcopal denomination was founded because of these disparities. Richard Allen, a man born into slavery and a parishioner at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, had grown weary of the discrimination and degradation he experienced as a second-class church member—especially at the hands of those who professed the Christian faith. In 1787, Allen formed a separate congregation, and in 1816 he organized several black Methodist congregations into a new denomination called the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He believed that the best way to protest racial subjugation by white church leadership was to have a strong black church denomination in which blacks could worship without racially motivated restrictions.
Over the next several decades, the denomination spread beyond Philadelphia to major cities in Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Michigan, as well as to Washington, D.C. By 1856, it had swelled to 20,000 members. The A.M.E. Church was not allowed in Texas until after the end of the Civil War; however, many slaves had practiced Methodism, following the custom of their owners. The first African Methodist Church missionary to Texas was M. M. Clark who, in 1866, blazed the path for 15 A.M.E. missionaries to Texas, including Reverend Richard Robert Haywood.
New Preacher in Town
Haywood had traveled the 25 miles from Austin to Georgetown, preaching in rural black communities and seeking converts along the way. He preached to small groups of blacks under the faded green of dried branch cuttings placed across the top of open beam roofs supported by wooden pillars. These brush arbors were constructed by the recently freed slaves who attended Haywood’s services. They could not write their names because educating blacks was illegal. But they were skilled laborers, builders, and craftsmen who took pride in building these outdoor, sometimes hidden, places of worship.
A New Church
In 1877, five Wesley Chapel trustees began negotiations for the property across the street from where they had been meeting. However, it wasn’t until 1881 that the purchase was completed, for $5.00. The five trustees, Monroe Sansom, Mark Cook, John Rentfro, Joseph Armstrong, and Addison Rose, placed their Xs on the deed, and the clerk filled in their names. “It is noted that the purveyors of the deed refer to the Methodist Episcopal Church [rather than the African Methodist Episcopal Church] as they were not willing to recognize the independent black clergy,” writes Dr. Paula Dawning, Wesley Chapel pro tem, steward, and church researcher.
The land purchased by the trustees included a diminutive one-room frame building that became the congregation’s first real building. Congregants worshipped here for 23 years, outgrowing the building by 1904. The story of how they raised the money to build a new structure, which still stands today, testifies to their fortitude and character. Led by Reverend J. A. Jones, who had been appointed pastor after Haywood, and Elder J. W. Watson, the church raised enough money to begin construction. The pastor’s wife—her name recorded only as Mrs. J. A. Jones—organized “The Nail Club,” the children’s fundraising cohort. The children sang and danced in musicals and made things to sell, raising enough money to buy one of the most expensive construction materials at the time: nails. The women sold baked goods and dinners. Members and other community volunteers built the church by hand in the stately Gothic style prevalent at the time. To celebrate the dedication of the new building, dignitaries from Southwestern University, among others, were in attendance.
Some births are long in coming, especially those conceived in the womb of strife. But as protracted and as hard-fought as they are, the struggles teach us to appreciate what has been wrought. That’s the kind of back story that forms the foundation of Wesley Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Georgetown’s flagship African American house of worship.
Today, the building on East 4th Street stands as a physical monument to the vision and work of its founders, faithful members, and community volunteers. The modest church stands stubbornly strong on its plot of land. However, frequenters perceive how the building’s slight lean shows its age. Wesley Chapel A.M.E. Church has been refurbished over the years, including the addition of a new dining hall adjoining the original kitchen and a handcrafted wooden ramp allowing access to the physically impaired. The members raised the money for these repairs the way they always had done—by the work of their own hands. Now the congregation plans to start an endowment for building upgrades and expansion. Wesley Chapel A.M.E. Church, with its lancet windows and colored glass panes, will be around for a long time.
Wesley Chapel A.M.E. Church was designated as a Texas landmark by the State Historical Commission in 1984. In 1986, the church was entered into the National Register of Historical Places.