Historic black church celebrates
Black Mountain’s first black church is celebrating its resurrection on Saturday.
The Original Thomas Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church is celebrating three years of hard work that gave the rapidly deteriorating church new life. The celebration at the Carver Center near the historic church, established in 1892, is Thomas Chapel’s largest annual fundraiser. Proceeds from the lunch, available for $5 per person, help maintain the building, erected in 1922.
The celebration will include a special program of music, history and church tours. Lunch is available from noon-1 p.m. A rummage sale starts at 8 a.m.
“The little church on the hill is highly significant for the community because it was founded by freed slaves,” said Sybil Argintar, board president of the Original Thomas Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church. “It still holds a special place in the hearts of many African-American families in Black Mountain whose ancestors founded and then attended the church.”
Thomas Chapel, believed to be the first church for freed black people in Black Mountain, was called Tom’s Chapel when it was established (the name was later changed to Thomas Chapel). One of the earliest black families to locate in Black Mountain, and one of the founding families of the church, are the Stepps, descended from white Black Mountain slaveholder Joseph Stepp and his slave Myra Stepp, who was part Cherokee.
The men in the Stepp family worked in Black Mountain as farmers, carpenters, contractors, brick masons, grave diggers, loggers and railroad workers. Many of the women were domestic workers, teachers and health care workers. The Stepps, along with members of the Daugherty, Davidson, Lytle and Burnett families, were among the earliest members of the church.
All of them can trace their ancestry back to slaves and the free black population that inhabited Black Mountain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
There is no clear documentation as to whether the current church is on the same parcel on which Tom’s Chapel was located. Tom’s Chapel, constructed of logs hauled from land in the Lytle Cove community, was named for Tom Pertiller and Thomas Daugherty, two of the founding fathers of the church. Black congregations of Methodists and Baptists used it, on alternating Sundays.
In 1910, Mills Chapel Baptist Church, a black church (now known as Bible Way Baptist Church) was constructed, and the Baptists could attend their own church. However, many of the families continued to attend services at both churches. Tom’s Chapel was finally torn down, but the date was not recorded.
Little is known about what the second church building looked like. The third building, the current Thomas Chapel Church A.M.E. Zion Church, was built in 1922 and pastored by the Rev. W.R. Lovell.
The church was the center of social as well as religious life in the black community. There was no recreation hall, but the sanctuary doubled as one. There were singing conventions featuring local vocalists competing for recognition. Inspirational speakers were welcome. Plays, religious skits and Christmas programs were performed in the sanctuary. Congregants and guests considered it a privilege to participate in the events at church. Funeral services were held there. Until the 1940s, most black weddings were held at home.
Services continued in the current church building until 1974, when work on a new building on West College Street in Black Mountain began.
Several years ago, Dorothy “Dot” Greenlee Jones and Deborah Hamilton Palmer, descendants of the founders, became concerned about the state of the empty building and decided to save it. After many meetings, the church was turned over to Jones and Hamilton Palmer. A small board incorporated Oct. 20, 2006 to guide the restoration. Work began three years ago.
“The church is still a work in progress, but we don’t have too much renovation left to do,” Jones said. “It has to be made handicapped- and senior-assessable, and we have to have an outside bathroom facility built. Then it will be a matter of maintenance and preservation.”
The restoration work on the church was done by Bill Gilham and his construction team. They donated more than $30,000 in labor and materials. The Original Thomas Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church Restoration Corporation is tax-exempt. The church has been on the National Register of Historical Places since 2009.
Every year the Preservation Society of Asheville & Buncombe County presents the Griffin Awards for outstanding property reclaimations and individuals who further the goals of historic preservation in the city and county. The Original Thomas Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church has received two Griffin Awards. Now the church is a facility whose doors are open periodically to the public for tours and special events.
Since Thomas Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church is nonprofit, all donations are tax-deductible. All funds go to the ongoing preservation of the church. Donations are used for church operations and maintenance.
For more, contact Argintar at Sybil.firstname.lastname@example.org or call 230-3773.
Celebrate Thomas Chapel A.M.E. Zion
When: Noon-3 p.m. Sept. 26
Where: Carver Center, 101 Carver Ave.
Available: Noon lunch, $5