By Dr. Kenneth Hill and Stacey Watson (first published in Southern Exposure Magazine)
Franklin, Tenn.—In February, we celebrate, honor and bring to light the extraordinary contributions of our shared American history by Black Americans.
In Franklin, this year, the Historic Shorter Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church will turn 154 years old. To put the year into perspective, this historically Black church was started in Franklin just three years after the ending of the American Civil War. The AME Church is the oldest African American denomination in the United States, coming to Franklin by way of Pennsylvania.
“Shorter Chapel,” as it is fondly called by members and Franklin residents alike, was originally housed in what was once the Franklin First United Method Church building. Franklin First UMC was moving from its location on Fifth Avenue South and Church Street and sold its building to the Shorter Chapel congregation for $1,500.
Religion and faith were well-rooted in Franklin, and folks both Black and White had begun the difficult work of recovery and restoration after the trauma of the Civil War in this small, 1,000-person town.
“Their faces were toward the future, and their hands and hearts were lifted toward heaven and their confidence was placed in God.”
Reverend Jordan Winston Early,
First Pastor of Shorter Chapel
Mariah and Bolen Reddick were early members of Shorter Chapel. Mariah Reddick had deep roots in Franklin and at one time was enslaved at Carnton. She met her second husband, Bolen Reddick, in Montgomery, where she was sent from Carnton for refuge from a war-torn Tennessee. She was able to marry Mr. Reddick as a free woman and live in Franklin.
While Mariah made history working in tandem with Carrie McGavock, eventually she would serve as a paid member of the household, making her own mark.
ANC Williams was another well-known early member of the church, a name well-recognized in Franklin for his leadership in business and community service.
Shorter Chapel has been a beacon of hope and strength since its inception in 1868. The congregation grew at the Fifth Avenue location enough to support the church’s own choir and own an organ. This growth would eventually cause the congregation to move to its current location in the heart of the historic Natchez Street.
This move in 1924 was closely followed by the community, as the congregation literally dismantled pieces of the church to use as foundational pieces for the new sanctuary. Bricks, windows and a door were paraded through town by hand and wheelbarrows to the new location. These bricks and windows are still a part of the architecture of the church. At this time, ANC Williams would have been about 83 years old, and Maggie Matthews, granddaughter of Harvey McLemore, who built the McLemore House in Franklin’s Hard Bargain neighborhood, would have been 30.
Shorter Chapel and its members were and still are deeply rooted in business, education, religion and the history of Franklin.
Fred “Red” Laws lived at Harlinsdale; he was a World War I veteran and a horse trainer working with Midnight Sun, the world-famous walking horse stallion from the Harlinsdale Farm.
Ms. Bazelia Harris was a prominent teacher at the Franklin Training School, and Mrs. Mary Mills was the first woman and first Black principal in Franklin. Dr. Charles Johnson, for whom Johnson Elementary was named, was the first African American in Williamson County to chair a Federal Housing Authority.
The congregation itself has always been supportive of the community, providing sanctuary, hope and wisdom during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement. As the tenets of the AME Church provide, Shorter Chapel lends outreach both to its members and surrounding neighbors to “seek out and save the lost, and serve the needy.”
To add to its legacy, Shorter Chapel currently owns the only known home in Franklin that was a part of the “Negro Motorist Green Book.” The home is located on Natchez Street. Thelma Battle, a local historian, is currently writing a book about the home. MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation is working to partner with Shorter Chapel to provide the best ways to share this important piece of history with the community and visitors.
Shorter Chapel strives to maintain its historical legacy of hope and integrity. At this time, the church is undergoing a $140,000 fundraising campaign to repair its bell tower. The bell tower has deteriorated over time so much that it is unable to support its 93-year-old historic bell.
During the height of COVID-19, the church needed to focus efforts on taking care of its members and providing safety and solace. Shorter Chapel is now renewing its efforts to take care of its legacy.
“I think about the future, too, about the next 150 years. I wonder who will come here, sit here and pray here, whose lives will be memorialized here after we are gone.
“I hope those who come after us will be able to look at the work we have done and be grateful for the care we are taking now. When completed, the new bell tower will ring into the community the sound of hope to the people of the Natchez community and beyond!”
Reverend Dr. Kenneth Hill, Pastor, Historic Shorter Chapel AME Church
Contact Reverend Dr. Kenneth Hill, to contribute or mail checks to Shorter Chapel Tower Fund, P.O. Box 1307, Franklin, TN, 37065.
Shorter Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church is truly a gift to Franklin, providing a legacy of hope and a map for historical context for the last 154 years.
For more information about the history of Shorter Chapel, go to www.shorterchapelame.com