Reader reveals the history behind the photograph
Mary Othella Burnette grew up in the Mills Chapel Baptist Church congregation and at 87 years of age, she may be one of the few people left who could identify the July 19, 2018, Valley Rewind photograph and the people in it.
Luckily, though she now lives in Michigan, she still takes The Black Mountain News and was able to email the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center not only with identifications, but also with information about the families, occupations, and personalities of the people in the photograph.
Based on the ages of those pictured – her schoolmates, neighbors, and relatives – the predominance of light-colored clothing and the full foliage, she estimates that the photograph was taken in the summer of 1932 or 1933.
As early as the late 1800s, there was a thriving religious life for African Americans in town. Local resident John Myra Stepp (1850 – 1955) reportedly told his son, Jesse, that early on the Methodists and Baptists worshipped in the same building on alternating Sundays.
However, beginning in October 1907, the Baptists began soliciting funds to build their own church. The fund drive was led by the women of the church, who hosted a necktie and apron party and raised the first $7.30. In this traditional fundraiser, women would make aprons and neckties out of printed fabric – but only one of each in any one print. The men would then buy a necktie for ten cents. At the party the men would find their partner – the woman whose apron matched their necktie.
The following year, Reverend John S. Mills became the church’s first pastor. Known for his long, white beard, Reverend Mills served not only as pastor, but also as schoolmaster and carpenter. He served until 1913, and in 1919, the name of the church was officially changed to Mills Chapel in his honor. It was that same year that the white frame building in the photograph was constructed.
Even after Mills left his post as pastor and schoolmaster, the church remained closely linked to the school. Clear View Grammar, the old rock school building that stood a few yards behind the church, had no auditorium, so Mills Chapel hosted the school’s plays. Burnette recalled that though secular songs and presentations were not allowed in the church on Sundays, “Clear View Grammar’s school plays – comedies, musicals, and recitations – were staged on weekday evenings in the choir box and in the pulpit cleared for that purpose.”
“In second grade,” Burnette recalled, “I stood at the edge of the pulpit to repeat the inspirational six-page story of two boats racing for shore in a storm. Parents had to pay a small admission fee to view their children's performance. My mother believed the money went into our teachers' pockets to help them during the summer months when they received no pay. Surely any amount helped as their $30 -$35 monthly salaries were on hold from June until September. However, as I recall, the fee was never more than 20 cents per parent.”
When built, Mills Chapel faced north at the corner of Cragmont and North Blue Ridge Road/Fortune Street near the present-day location of the Carver Center.
In its original location, “men usually gathered closer to the parking area [though] only a handful of members, including Deacon Dave Jones, Deacon Charlie Brown, and Mr. Walter Wells, owned cars,” Burnette remembered, “while women and small children congregated just outside the church doors” where the photograph was taken, “and caught up on the news of the past week.”
Years later, “a large, round lamp [was] suspended from its goose-neck fixture…above the circular glass paneled window over the double doors in front. It gave light for those who walked home after evening services until our eyes adjusted to the pitch blackness of night. No street lights existed along the stretch of Cragmont Road that ran through the Black community in the 1930s.”
In 1946, the congregation - under the leadership of Reverend Mark Hooper - voted to move the church building across the street, so that the property could be sold to the Buncombe County School Board for the construction of George Washington Carver Elementary School. According to Burnette, the new property was also attractive because it was larger and accommodated the growing number of cars that members were now able to afford.
“Under the direction of Deacon Dave Jones, the church building was maneuvered right across Fortune Street, over the edge of the front yard of our home at 115 Fortune Street and settled onto its foundation where it stands today,” Burnette said. “To compensate us for the severe pruning of our hedges to accommodate the move, dear old Mr. Jones gave me one of the four beautiful large round evergreen shrub bushes that had decorated the corners of the courtyard in front of Mills Chapel before it was moved. We planted it beside our back doorsteps.”
Music was always a central part of worship at the old Mills Chapel church. During the 1930s and 1940s, when Burnette attended the church, she remembered that prior to traditional hymn singing the oldest members of the church – those born prior to 1900 – would chant hymns. Hymn chanting was always a cappella and every hymn followed the same distinct melodic pattern. The chants reminded Burnette “of a laborious work song breathed in phrases but using words of Christian hymns.”
“This hymn-sing,” Burnette remembered, “required only the title of the hymn to be called out; for example, ‘Amazing Grace.’” It would not have been uncommon for these older members to have memorized the words to hundreds of hymns.
Later in the service, the congregation would sing traditional hymns. For these hymns Deacon Jones would hymn line, that is, he would recite a line of a song and the congregation would sing it. Though now rare, hymn lining was popular with churches that did not have access to hymnals. Hymn lining was also helpful for those who had never been taught to read. Despite its prevalence, Burnette felt that, “[hymn lining] was more of a ritual than a necessity because the congregants knew the hymns by heart.”
Many choir members, including Burnette’s sister, Irene, also learned to read music by shape note. Choir members would not only memorize the words and melodies of a song, but would also memorize the names of the notes (do-mi-sol-mi) and sing those names for a few measures at the beginning of some songs rather than the words of the hymns.
Despite the prominence of a cappella hymns, the church did have a piano and Reverend Hooper’s daughters, Violet and Faye, would often accompany the congregation.
According to Burnette, “One of the most popular musical events was the Singing Convention. Singing groups from Mills Chapel and visiting singers would perform all day on Sundays.” The Gragg brothers – Hanse, Mayfield, George Asbury II “Razz”, and “Bub” – formed a quartet that performed at the conventions as well as regularly at church services. Burnette believes these singing conventions may have substituted for the church service when no minister was available.
To feed all the convention-goers, especially those who came from churches outside Black Mountain and who could not eat at restaurants in town because of segregation, the congregation would hold potluck dinners. The food “would be arranged on the pews, turned seat to seat,” Burnette said. Hungry participants would serve themselves as they passed down the aisles between the pews.
By the end of the 1940s, many of the musical traditions had faded with the passing of the congregation’s older members. However, Mills Chapel congregants continued to worship in the white wooden building until 1981, when they sold it to Bible Way Baptist Church and moved to a new brick building on the hill above The Original Thomas Chapel and burying ground.
Though the old building is now home to the congregation of Valley Chapel Free Will Baptist Church, it still stands as a memorial to the early days of Black religious freedom in Black Mountain.