The Early Years
The first African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1866 as Pierce Chapel on Foundry Street at the foot of East Hancock Avenue. Before the Civil War, its 250+ members were led by white ministers under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church – South (MECS). Pierce Chapel’s members were descendants of slaves brought to north Georgia in 1830 from Virginia and Maryland by mostly white Methodists for the labor-intensive plantation system. In 1844, when the MECS was formed out of its national body over the question of slavery, the local Methodist church moved its old wooden sanctuary to the Foundry Street location for its African American members and built one of brick.
When the Civil War ended in April 1865, the A.M.E. Church quickly established its presence in Georgia. In the winter of 1866, Rev. Henry McNeal Turner arrived in Augusta as a Union Chaplain but quickly turned to A.M.E. Church work. During its parallel 1866 General Conference, the MECS, which faced an uncertain future, a collapsing slave-driven economy, and inevitable change, voted to separate its black membership into a separate Methodist Church.
Shortly thereafter, the Athens Methodist Church responded to this mandate through Dr. Henry Hull and laid the foundation for Pierce Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Dr. Hull (math professor, physician, and planter) formally donated the same Foundry Street property for the A.M.E. Church. In an ironic twist of fate, Dr. Hull was a son of the Rev. Hope Hull, a pioneering Georgia Methodist and close associate of Rev. Francis Asbury – America’s first Methodist Bishop who ordained Rev. Richard Allen, founding bishop of the A.M.E. Church.
During this same eventful year, the A.M.E. Church’s expansion prevailed as it sent the Rev. Henry McNeal Turner on a tour of Athens and north Georgia. Having already conducted an 1858 revival as a traveling evangelist surely enabled him in converting the Pierce Chapel congregation to African Methodism. By May 1867, Rev. S.B. Jones of Athens was formally installed as its first pastor – after being appointed Itinerant Elder at the 1867 South Carolina General Conference of the A.M.E. Church held in Wilmington, NC. According to A.M.E. discipline, both Rev. S.B. Jones and Rev. Turner had attended the 1866 General Conference in their preparation.
The Church Rises in Stature and Influence
In 1874, Rev. John M. Cargile was pastor and led construction of the first new sanctuary. In January 1875, the church hosted the second session of the North Georgia Conference with Bishop Thomas M.D. Ward presiding. The first session was held in Augusta when the original Georgia Conference (est.1868) was divided into North Georgia and South Georgia Conferences. By 1876, Pierce Chapel A.M.E. Church had established a school in its basement. Future Bishop, Rev. William Henry Heard of Elbert County arrived in Athens, joined the church, and served as a teacher. He was converted in 1879 during a revival by Rev. Henry M. Turner at Pierce Chapel.
In 1881, the brilliant Rev. Dr. William Decker Johnson (b.1842) arrived, married Alice Ransom, and taught English to many new German-speaking Jews in Athens. In 1881, the present-day lot on the corner of Hull and Strong Street was purchased. In 1884, he was appointed the first Secretary of Education for the A.M.E. Church for twelve years and led installation of a steeple and bell for Pierce Chapel; and in 1891, served on the advisory board of A.M.E. ministers for Savannah State University’s founding session on Baxter Street in Athens. Rev. Johnson was appointed Presiding Elder in 1897 and President of Allen University (Columbia, SC) in 1904.
During 1912-14, Rev. J.W. Dore launched a new building campaign. Rev. Cornelius Maxwell Manning completed the 1915 sale of the old church and in 1916 a $7,000 bond sale. Services were held at Union Hall. On Sunday, May 1, 1917, Rev. Edward Kingston Nichols led a processional from Union Hall to the present Sanctuary and burned the mortgage. Celebrated laymen were Dr. William H. Harris, MD, (Building Committee Chairman); architect Louis H. Persley, and builder Richard F. Walker, both of Macon. Mr. Persley was also the building designer for the Samaritan Building on Washington Street. A professionally trained architect, he joined the faculty at Tuskegee and continued his private practice as well. He was the first African American to join the Georgia State Board of Registered Architects. In 1920, Rev. William A. Fountain, Jr. built the first parsonage (Strong Street) immediately behind the present Sanctuary.
Robert Romans was appointed pastor in the late 1920s. By 1930, the church choir directed by musician Ms. Lillian Lee achieved state-wide acclaim and won many awards.
Among some of this church’s most distinguished Athens-born laypersons were:
Mr. Hall Francis Johnson: Famed world-renowned Gospel Music composer; son of A.M.E. Church giant Rev. Dr. William Decker Johnson.
Dr. Ida Johnson Hiram: First black female dentist in the state of Georgia; a stained-glass window is dedicated in honor of her mother, Mrs. Alice Johnson.
Ms. Juliette A. Derricotte: Talladega College (Alabama) graduate and its first female Trustee; World YWCA representative traveling to England, China, and Japan; and Dean of Women at Fisk University at only 32 years of age.
Prof. Samuel F. Harris: In 1915 was the first Principal of Athens High & Industrial School, the first accredited high school for African Americans in Georgia; husband of Mrs. Judia Jackson Harris, founder of Model and Training School on Danielsville Road.
Prof. Ellen F. Greene: Fisk University faculty; In 1978, bequeathed $69,000 to the church.
These extraordinary persons, some fortunate enough to have developed free from slavery, were strong enough to survive, thrive and impact the world despite its oppressive effects.
The Past 50 Years
In 1964, Rev. Dr. Clayton Duke Wilkerson was appointed pastor and served for 11 years. The church was twice renovated, a pew fund and the first Christian Education Department were established. Air conditioning was installed, and a $20,000 Building Fund drive was launched for a new educational center.
In 1973, the C.D. Wilkerson Educational Center was finally erected. Trustee Board members included Mrs. Julia Bacon, Board Chair, Bros. James R Smith, Carl E. Britton, Will Henry Parrott, Mrs. Leona N. Wade, Mrs. Lula E. Ware, and Ms. Rosa B. Strickland. Stewards were Bros. Thomas Bowles, Rufus Franklin, Robert Harrison, George Huff, Farris Johnson, Sr., Ralph Johnson, David Roberts, Willie Robinson, Leroy Smith, Jr., John Wade and Reginald Wade, Mrs. Minnie Diggs, Ruby Greene, Jessie McWhorter, Cordelia Taylor, and Annie Thomas.
In April 1980, Rev. William Reed Wilkes, Jr. affected the placement of the church on the National Register of Historic Places. The steering committee: Chairperson Mrs. Cordelia Taylor, Mrs. Arabella B. Murray; and members Mr. James Ray, Mrs. Rosa B. Strickland, Mrs. Julia Bacon, Mrs. Jessie McWhorter, Mrs. Annie Thomas, Mrs. Minnie Diggs, Ms. Janice Murray, Mrs. Annie B. McClain, Mr. Rufus Franklin, Mr. Willie Robinson, Mr. Farris Lee, Dr. Robert Harrison, Mr. Eddie R. Scotland, Mr. David Roberts; and Mr.& Mrs. Benjamin (Naomi) DeLoach.
In 1985, the church purchased the Historic Hiram House from the Alice Wimberly estate (formerly the home of her mother, Dr. Ida M. Johnson Hiram). For preservation purposes, Project Renew, Inc., was incorporated on April 14, 1995, by Bro. Leroy Smith, Jr., and Dr. Robert E. Harrison and secured its 501 (c)(3) nonprofit tax-exempt status on January 16, 2012. Existing church funds were leveraged with $30,000 in assistance from the Athens-Clarke County Department of Human and Economic Development (HED). Bro. Leroy Smith was Chairman, Bro. Harold Taylor, President, Ms. Patricia Harrison, Agent; along with Mrs. Ruby Shaw, Dr. Ivery Clifton (later president), Dr. Robert Harrison, Bro. Claude McKenzie, and Bro. Lawrence Jenkins.
In 2000, William Haley Construction, Inc. was the builder. Groundbreaking participants were Rev. Dr. George LaSure, Bro. Lawrence Jenkins, Ms. Patricia Harrison, Mrs. Aurelia Scott, Mrs. Ruby Shaw, Richard Hathaway (Athens Historic Preservation), HED staff, and William Haley. For this work, Project Renew, Inc., was presented the 2006 Preservation Award by the Athens Historic Preservation Commission. Located in the Reese Street Historic District, it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
First A.M.E. Church has been blessed to have direct descendants of founding Bishop Richard Allen as members: the late Mrs. Katharine Dockens, the sixth (6th) generation, passed in June 2017 at the age of 95. Mrs. Dockens gladly shared her knowledge of A.M.E. History and the family of Bishop Allen throughout the A.M.E. church, traveling as far as Africa and all over the United States. Mrs. V. Yvonne Studevan, the seventh (7th) generation, continues to worship with First A.M.E. and also shares her knowledge of A.M.E. history, as well as her impeccable artistic skills throughout the A.M.E. Church.
After a previous 1979-86 appointment, Rev. Claude R. James returned in 2009 to lead a $125,000 campaign for the 2013 exterior church renovation. The church received the Stewardship Award from the Athens Historic Preservation Commission for its work. His unique tenure features a record 15 combined years of service and the pastoral guidance of eight ministers: Rev. Ronald Miller, the late Rev. Archibald Killian, Rev. Rahsaan Matthews, Rev. Terrie Patterson, Rev. Shakita Johnson, Rev. Pricilla Bryant, Rev. John Crawford, and Rev. Rosetta Johnson Mackey. Rev. James also opened the pulpit to Rev. Yolande M. Ajamu during his tenure serving the Veterans Administration in Athens. Rev. James’ tenure at First A.M.E. ended in June 2017 as he was appointed to the position of Presiding Elder of the North Augusta District.
B.A. Hart has been the spiritual leader of First A.M.E. since June 2017. Under his leadership First A.M.E. continues to move out into the community working with several non-profit organizations, providing assistance and support to children and families in Athens, as well as providing scholarships for STEM camp students. Many improvements to the church have been accomplished, such as a new roof and windows for the fellowship hall. Rev. Hart brings has a special love for the children of the church and brings a spirit-filled and exciting message.
For more information visit: https://firstameathens.org/about