The Building of Franklin's Historic Shorter Chapel

Jan 27, 2023 at 10:50 am by RMGadmin

Brick by Brick

By Katie Shands
By 1925, Franklin had hosted its fair share of parades, but this procession was unlike any the town had ever seen. Instead of batons and brass instruments, participants carried old windows and a door. Others pushed wheelbarrows of used bricks. Despite the heavy loads, everyone’s mood was light and celebratory.
The congregation of Shorter Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church surely drew an audience as they hauled their dismantled sanctuary from Cameron Street (now Second Avenue), to Natchez Street, where they planned to rebuild. However, this was much more than a parade. Each step with those bricks — handmade by the congregants’ enslaved ancestors — was a poignant reminder of how far they’d come. Each step was a small victory. Each step brought them closer to a future that had once seemed impossible. No, this wasn’t just another parade. This was the dawn of a new chapter for Shorter Chapel.
To truly understand the journey of this Franklin congregation, we must rewind to the birth of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church as a whole. During the late eighteenth century in Philadelphia, trailblazing pastor and freedman Richard Allen joined St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Blacks and whites both worshiped there in segregated services, but as Black attendance increased, so did racial hostilities. The final straw came when white members pulled black worshipers off their knees during prayer. In response, Allen left St. George’s as part of a mass walkout and found the A.M.E. Church in 1816.

Shorter Chapel A.M.E. Church with parsonage on left. This is the original location on Second Avenue and Church Street (courtesy of Thelma Battle)

Shorter Chapel A.M.E. Church Sunday School class, late 1800s to early 1900s, original location on Second Avenue and Church Street (courtesy of Thelma Battle)

Shorter Chapel A.M.E. Church on Natchez Street. This is the churches second and present-day location (courtesy of Rick Warwick)

The denomination spread throughout the Northeast and Midwest, but it really took off after the Civil War when A.M.E. congregations began to form all over the South. In 1868, a group of formerly enslaved people in this area founded Shorter Chapel A.M.E. Church, named in honor of Bishop James Alexander Shorter, the ninth elected and consecrated A.M.E. bishop.
It is unknown where this band of believers worshiped in those early days, but within four years of the church’s founding, they purchased the former sanctuary of the Franklin First United Methodist Church for $1,500. The circa-1830 building, which stood on the present-day site of The Brownstones, had been badly damaged during the war, but it was ready to be dedicated by the following spring.
Consider what a milestone this was. Before the Civil War, the more than 12,000 enslaved people in Williamson County had limited options for religious practice. Often, they were banned from white churches or forced to attend their masters’ services where they were relegated to the back pews or galleries. Many were prohibited from worshiping at all and conducted secret religious ceremonies in the thickets and hollers around their cabins. And now, only a few years after emancipation, not only did this group have a church home, they owned it outright.

The congregation flourished in this location and eventually outgrew the space. In 1924, Shorter Chapel trustees purchased the Natchez Street site and built a new church the next year, incorporating pieces of the former sanctuary. Those elements still remain a part of the architecture.
Shorter Chapel became a vital part of the Natchez Street community, serving as a place of refuge and spiritual renewal throughout Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement. Today, the church remains home to an active congregation that continues to prove itself resolute and hardworking. In December, members celebrated the completion of a fundraiser that garnered more than $160,000 to repair their century-old bell tower. Work is expected to be completed in February, but the historic bell is already back in place, waiting to herald in yet another new chapter for Shorter Chapel.