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Historic Collins Chapel thankful for ‘monumental’ preservation awards

Grants totaling $548,000 recently were awarded to historic Collins Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the first African-American congregation established in Memphis.

The money came from the African American Civil Rights Grant Program Historic Preservation Fund.

“I became Collins Chapel pastor four years ago,” said Elder Bethel Harris. “So, I did not initiate the solicitation of grants. This has been going on for a long time. The funds were just awarded this year. We are planning to start the work sometime in 2023.”

Collins Chapel’s roots emanated from disgruntled African-American Methodists all over the South, who had grown weary of the second-class treatment from white counterparts.

They had to sit in the back or up in a church’s balcony if they were permitted to enter the church at all for worship service.

In Memphis, both slaves and free people of color pooled their resources to build Collins Chapel Church. They were proud that their congregation at that time was still connected with the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) denomination.

The 181 years of history makes this news more significant, Harris said. The historic church sits at 678 Washington Ave.

“Famous figures and important occasions are connected to Collins Chapel,” said Harris. “Anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, “Father of the Blues,” W.C. Handy, and jazz singer Alberta Hunter all worshipped here.

“Many civil rights meetings were here. These grants will ensure that the church’s infrastructure is strengthened to stand another 181 years.”

Collins Chapel Church has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1991. The African American Civil Rights Grant program is a part of the National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior.

Earlier this year, a Pre-Preservation Planning Grant of about $48,000 was awarded to assess and evaluate the structural deficiencies, as well as identify necessary updates of the church’s ventilation, plumbing, and electrical systems

The Physical Preservation Grant of $500,000 was awarded after the preliminary assessments were completed.

First Episcopal District Presiding Bishop Marvin Frank Thomas Sr. “We rejoice with Collins Chapel for this tremendous blessing from God.” (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley/The New Tri-State Defender Archives)

“On behalf of the First Episcopal District, we are excited about this monumental award to preserve this historic church,” said Presiding Bishop Marvin Frank Thomas Sr. “There is greater cause for celebration as we prepare to mark the 152nd anniversary of the First Episcopal District. What a tremendous blessing.”

Collins Chapel boasts an intriguing history.

Enslaved people and free people of color constructed a modern, wooden edifice, much like other buildings of its day.

However, lightning strikes ignited fires on two separate occasions. Repairs were made, and the congregation continued to grow and flourish.

But a devastating setback demolished the whole structure during the Memphis Massacre (1866) when angry whites plundered, burned African-American structures, and killed 46 community leaders and residents.

The city’s African-American community banded together to bury their dead and begin again. No one was ever charged with the arsons or murders.

The 25-year-old congregation of former slaves and free men determined to rebuild Collins Chapel. This time, the structure would be a brick edifice.

“Just as those early Christian Methodists continued to hold service, we will continue our regular worship when the renovations begin,” said Harris. “Whether it is somewhere in this building, or in some other structure, we will still meet for service in some location. We give God all the glory as we look to starting the much-needed refurbishments next year.”

Thomas said the news is being celebrated at Collins Chapel and throughout the entire First Episcopal District.

“We rejoice with Collins Chapel for this tremendous blessing from God,” said Thomas.

“We look forward to doing all we can at the First Episcopal District to support the church, so it continues to be a shining light of Christian Methodism throughout Memphis and beyond.”

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