The African Methodist Episcopal Church celebrated its 222nd anniversary this past Sunday. The church has been the cornerstone of life since slavery in the local African-American community.
Arnett Chapel Church, the oldest African-American AME church in Gadsden County, also celebrated Founder's Day. Children presented a skit detailing how founder Richard Allen decided to start a church in 1787. While whites allowed slaves to attend church with them, they controlled their religious expression and slaves were kept in sight as all times, usually sitting only in the balcony. These measures were taken to avoid creating the potential for insurrection and rebellion. Slaves were relegated to sitting in the balcony of meeting houses, a practice that angered Allen.
Closer to home, Arnett Chapel was founded in the early days of reconstruction. Coming from slavery, the Methodist followers called themselves the Methodist Society prior to 1965. As the group grew, they took on the name of Arnett Chapel AME, according to church records. Before that, church meetings took place in people's homes or under arbors made of assorted brush. There were no ministers and the services were led by volunteer speakers.
The first documented evidence of Quincy's oldest African-American church dates back to 1867 when a free man named Brister Gunn transferred a one-quarter acre deed to three other free men, Lafayette Hargate, Harry Crews and Fred Hill for the purpose of "erecting a house of worship." They paid $100 for the land on which the church still sits.
In 1874, almost 10 years later, a white frame structure was built but was named the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Quincy. It was not until 1898 that the church was named Arnett Chapel in honor of Rev. Benjamin Arnett. The congregation met in the wooden structure until 1938 when Rev. D.A. Russell, who had knowledge of architecture and construction, began the red brick structure.
African-American history is filled with religious influence. Churches took a major role in caring for families in time of need. Illnesses, homes lost to fire and college scholarships for students are a part of the expanded role of the church.
While some churches in the area became havens for civil rights meetings and safe places for voter registration drives, Arnett Chapel was absent. The minister at the time, Rev. A.H. Hunter, refused when activist and local citizens asked if the church could be used for meetings.
"They were turned around right on those steps," said John Hutley, pointing to the front steps of the church.
While Hunter could control who used the building, he could not control members who were deeply committed to civil rights and voter registration. Hutley said many members of Arnett Chapel worked for equal rights when it was unpopular. Things changed and former Sen. Julian Bond was once a speaker at the church. During election years, the church hosts political forums where all candidates are asked to discuss their platforms.
In more recent years, the church has undergone a series of repairs that will insure the structure stands for another 100 years. It is on the city's historic tour route and visitors take pictures of its unique architecture and stained glass windows. There is a computer lab and the church offers computer classes, FCAT tutoring, a monthly movie night, a dance ministry and community outreach programs.