Organized in 1866, Beth Salem Cumberland Presbyterian Church stands as a testament to the Christian heritage that spans the years for blacks in the region. Located between Athens and Etowah, Tenn., off Tennessee Highway 30, Beth Salem was the first black church in McMinn, Meigs and Polk counties.
Slavery officially ended in Tennessee in April 1865, and Beth Salem Church was founded the following year by two black ministers and former slaves, the Revs. George Waterhouse and Jacob Armstrong, on land donated by a white woman, Martha Patsy Fite. The church, its adjoining cemetery and kitchen pavilion are lasting remnants of post-Civil War recovery and enduring hope in the region.
Today, the history of Beth Salem Church is being preserved through the efforts of Ann Hitchcock Boyd, a descendant of one of the church’s founding families, and other relatives and friends.
Boyd’s great-great-grandmother, Sylvia Chestnutt, was born into slavery on Edwards Plantation in Charleston, S.C., and toward the end of the Civil War was sold to the Chestnutt family, which owned a farm located between Athens and Etowah.
Sylvia’s three children were sold to other farms in the McMinn County area. Her youngest daughter, Daphney, who was 12 or 13 years old at the time, was sold to the Peck family in Etowah, Tenn.
After the Civil War came to an end, Sylvia reportedly traveled to area farms in an effort to find her daughter and two sons, asking about any slaves who were originally from South Carolina. Boyd’s family passed down this story of Sylvia and Daphney’s reunion: One day, Sylvia rode up to the Peck farm in a dilapidated wagon pulled by a mule. Daphney, age 15, jumped into the wagon without looking back. Years later, Daphney told family members that even if she lived to be 1,000 years old, she would never forget the day that her mother came to get her.
After the war ended, former slaves often didn’t have anywhere to go, and many farmers still needed help on their land. Sylvia and Daphney returned to the Chestnutt family farm, which Boyd says must have been a big farm with a kind family that took them in. (Today, the Chestnutt farm is called Pebblebrook Farm and is located off Highway 30 between Athens and Etowah.)
Beth Salem Church organized monthly worship services for black families in what was an integrated farming community after the Civil War. Services were held under a brush arbor until a log meetinghouse was constructed. The Rev. Fate Sloop, a white minister, assisted the congregation by reading scripture from the Bible, as former slaves had been banned from learning to read.
In the 1920s, a one-story, one-room, weatherboard-covered building was constructed to replace the log house, which was destroyed in a fire. Church services were held each Sunday, and a school for black students operated during the week.
With the decline of small farms and the growth of factory jobs in the 1920s, the community of Beth Salem faded as many people left family farms for work in the nearby towns of Athens and Etowah. Regular church services at Beth Salem ceased in the 1950s, about a decade after classroom instruction ended. The church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.
Each year in August, family and friends gather at Beth Salem Church to remember ancestors and celebrate the church’s history with preaching, singing and a potluck dinner on the grounds. The annual homecoming event, which will take place Aug. 24 this year, is open to the public.
“Homecoming makes you feel like you have a little bit of history that you can take home with you once a year,” said Boyd, who grew up attending the Beth Salem homecoming each year with her family.
“The Beth Salem homecoming was always my father and mother’s favorite place to go every year,” said Boyd, who grew up in Etowah and now lives with her husband on 30 acres in Riceville, Tenn.
“My older brother and I had a real passion for Beth Salem, just as my parents did,” she said. “After he passed away in 2012, I thought, ‘I can’t let this go-I have to keep it going so future generations understand what it was to have a place to go worship after we were free.’
“My ultimate desire is to preserve that building and to keep its history going and to allow younger generations the opportunity to understand the history and how it wasn’t easy for people to get to church,” she said.
For more information about Beth Salem Cumberland Presbyterian Church, visit the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association website.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a Chattanooga-based writer and naturalist who enjoys promoting the region’s historical, cultural and natural assets through her work with the Southeast Tennessee Tourism Association. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.
Updated @ 8:05 a.m. on 3/17/14 to correct a factual error: Ann Hitchcock Boyd is a descendant of one of the founding church members, not an ancestor, as originally reported.