The Rural African American Church Project seeks to identify and document historic African American churches located in rural areas throughout Tennessee. Administered by the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University, the program began in 1997 as a long-term effort to identify, analyze, and interpret significant African American rural churches. Initial projects included a statewide survey of extant historic churches, a research report delineating the historical and architectural patterns associated with the churches, and nomination of individual churches to the National Register of Historic Places.
For Tennessee’s African Americans, there are no more important places associated with community, history, and identity than their churches. Especially in the countryside, rural churches, often with adjacent historic cemeteries, schools, and fraternal lodges, are valuable places to study and document the African American experience. Rural churches often became the predominant space within the built environment to express community and culture. In the 1920s rural African American churches often sponsored the construction of Rosenwald schools, often on adjoining property. In small towns African American congregations also sponsored Rosenwald projects. Later, as Rosenwald schools were closed or abandoned, local churches would incorporate the buildings into their own physical plants, as at the Oak Grove CME Church in Shelby County. As the twentieth century progressed, the attention of local congregations turned towards the Civil Rights movement, and church buildings became the sites for planning antisegregation demonstrations and for hosting voter registration drives. Many rural historic churches are monuments to, and significant places directly involved with, the local fight for civil rights. Their importance in this regard is demonstrated by the fact that churches were sometimes bombed, burned, or defaced by those attempting to stop integration.
With support of the Tennessee Historical Commission and the National Park Service, the project in 1999 produced the influential multiple property study titled “Historic Rural African American Churches in Tennessee, 1850-1970.” Since that time, the project has nominated a wide range of churches to the National Register of Historic Places, including the Bethsalem Presbyterian Church in McMinn County; the Craigs Chapel AME Zion Church in Loudon County; the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Lincoln County; and the Canaan Baptist Church in Tipton County. In 2000, with support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the project released the booklet, Powerful Artifacts: A Guide to Surveying and Documenting Rural African American Churches. This statewide research effort, the first of its kind in the nation, seeks to establish a long-term documentary project which will serve all Tennesseans for years to come.