Brown Chapel Fund Raiser, phase one completed

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 3, 2007

The Selma Times-Journal

In 1999 Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Register of Historic Places. An architectural and historic icon, the church was organized in 1867 and has seen heavy and consistent usage over the intervening years.

Brown Chapel was the favored pulpit by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and has become internationally known through its leadership role in the struggle for Voting Rights. Each year the footsteps of thousands are felt throughout the church, and, as a result of such heavy usage and the subsequent damage sustained after Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, extensive restoration is necessary.

Email newsletter signup

In order to meet the costs of the necessary restoration, in March 2005 a Capital Restoration Campaign was announced, with an ultimate goal of

$500,000. Nancy G. Sewell is serving as chairman of the funds raising committee, assisted by Jean Jackson, Earlene Larkin, Juanda Maxwell, Dorothy Brown, Jim Stallings, Jean Cunningham, Evelyn Babcock, Frances Headen, James L. Jackson, Al Perry and Robert J. Perry.

And, after two years Phase One of the Capital Campaign has been completed, with more than $100,000 raised and restoration well underway. In what the Rev. James E. Jackson, church pastor, terms “Preserving a Part of History,” the two bell towers are being repaired, tower leaks are fixed, exterior painting is done, repairs have been made to interior stair walls and those to the tower floors are for the most part completed.

“Now,” Rev. Jackson says, “the bell can ring. We are so grateful to the committee – they led the charge in fund raising.”

According to Chairman Sewell, “More than half the funds have been raised by members.

Donations have come also from other parts of the country: among these a Chicago church, Faith in Politics Association, the National Park Service and from tourists visiting Brown Chapel. The Selma-Dallas County Historic Preservation Society made a gift, and donations have come from estates of deceased Selmians – even some real estate – and, Rev. Jackson says, “from everyday people here in Selma.”

Phase Two will be launched on “Bloody Sunday”(now known as Jubilee Sunday) in commemoration of the events on Pettus Bridge, Sunday March 7, 1965. In this phase a film telling the powerful role Brown Chapel played in Voting Rights from inception of the movement and beyond to the present. The Freedom Foundation, recent arrival in Selma, is assisting, including making grant applications to Saving American Treasures and in development of the Brown Chapel Web Site.

Meanwhile, visitors continue to enter Brown Chapel. In fact, they come in such numbers that a Tour Script, explicit in the history of the church, has been written for the guides to use. It begins with the beginning, the fact that Brown Chapel was the first A.M.E. Church in Alabama. The first structure was frame, erected in 1869 and in 1908 the church was rebuilt and assumed its present structure.

Included in the tour information is the history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1787 in Philadelphia by a few freed slaves, who had previously worshiped in St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Dissatisfied with their status there Richard Allen led a walkout and organized a church in a blacksmith shop.

In 1794 the group purchased land, built a church and Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church was born on the first property bought by blacks in Philadelphia. In later years the street on which the church is located was named Richard Allen Boulevard.

In the 1800s, the Selma Colored Methodist Episcopal Church South was formed by a handful of freed slaves. To enjoy their spiritual independence, after the Emancipation Proclamation they moved to the basement of the Albert Hotel in downtown Selma, discontinued their affiliation with the Methodist Church and applied for admission to the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. It was admitted in 1867 and is now known as Brown Chapel.

It is interesting to note that the church had its beginnings in the homes of some of the ancestors of present day members of Brown Chapel.

During the Voting Rights movement Gov. George C. Wallace successfully ordered the courts to issue an injunction prohibiting mass meetings in black churches. However, the Rev. P.H. Lewis, with the agreement of Bishop I.H. Bonner, persevered and re-opened the doors of Brown Chapel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there January 26, 1965.

From that time Brown Chapel was the primary site for mass meetings. And from Brown Chapel on March 7, 1965, 100 souls arose from their pews and gathered on the steps to begin the march to Montgomery.

On Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

Tax-deductible contributions may be made to: Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, Capital Restoration Campaign, c/o the Rev. James E. Jackson, Pastor, Post Office Box 456, Selma, AL 36702.