Historic Black Church In Springfield, Founded By Slaves, Is Raising Money For Needed Repairs
Scaffolding is going up inside the sanctuary of Pitts Chapel United Methodist Church near Kimbrough and Chestnut Expressway as crews prepare to work on a ceiling that’s been dropping plaster onto the floor and pews below.
The church is raising money for repairs and is about halfway to meeting its initial fundraising goal of $250,000.
This structure was built in 1911, but the historically Black church goes back many years before that. According to the church’s former pastor, Reverend Russell Ewell, enslaved people started the church in 1847.
"The powerful thing for me is, when you think about the time that that was, it was pre-Civil War, and you think about the conditions for African Americans at that moment, for enslaved Africans at that moment, to be able to go to your enslavers and ask for permission to start a church when that was not necessarily something that people wanted them to do--to be able to have a place where you can worship," he said.
Slave masters would sometimes bring in preachers who would emphasize the need for slaves to be obedient to their masters.
Once the slaves who started Pitts Chapel got permission to start a church, they set up a camp along Jordan Creek east and a little bit south of where the current church building stand today. They held camp-style church services until soon after the Civil War when they built a log cabin church in the same area. According to John Schmalzbauer, professor of religious studies at Missouri State University, that church was set on fire, and kids who ran to put out the flames were shot at. Another church structure was destroyed in a Jordan Creek flood before the current one was built 110 years ago.
John Huddleston is a member of Pitts Chapel. He returned to his hometown of Springfield three years ago and heard that the church he began attending when he was six-years-old in was in need of repairs.
"When I walked into my church and saw the condition that it was in," he said, "my mind was to, 'oh no...this can't be. We've got to fix this.' And at the same time we were talking about fixing our church, the church a block away that was built a few years after ours, but they were going to tear it down, and they did, so that kind of put a fear in my heart the same thing could happen to us if we don't do something immediately."
The church that was torn down in 2020 was Gibson Chapel, home of an historic Black church formed in 1865 that had fallen into disrepair.
Huddleston’s longtime friends, Morris Dock and Gary Harlan, got involved in raising money for and awareness of the needed projects at Pitts Chapel. Dock, a semi-retired commercial contractor and developer, offered advice to then pastor, Ewell, and Harlan helped to get the word out about the need to restore the church. He even got Ozzie Smith of baseball fame to be a spokesman for the campaign.
A drop acoustic ceiling wasn’t vented and was causing moisture problems high above the worshipers for many years. When it was removed by a group of volunteers and apprentices from the local carpenters’ union, the original plaster, mixed with horsehair, began dropping from above. Dock’s solution to preserve the remaining plaster and to save the church money was to have drywall installed against the original ceiling, allowing the curves of the structure to still be seen. That’s the work that will begin soon.
Huddleston is hopeful money will continue to come in to do the work that needs to be done.
"Pitts Chapel is my home, and when I came back and saw my church in the condition that it was in I almost broke down in tears," he said, "because when I left here it was a beautiful church with an organ, organ pipes, beautiful stained glass windows, hand decorated wood, it was just a gorgeous church, so after I pulled myself together and decided this was not going to stay this way, something has to be done. When I found out my classmates were willing to help, especially Morris and Gary here, it was no stopping them."
The church’s windows will eventually need to be taken out and repainted. And hand-painted stained glass windows will need to be restored. Other projects will need to be done as well, including painting. But Pitts Chapel now has an HVAC system, which will help prevent further deterioration. There’s all new lighting in the basement where services are being held for now. The building has new plumbing, inside and out, according to Huddleston, and a lot of the electrical has been redone. They hope to install a chair lift to allow those in wheelchairs to access the sanctuary.
If you’d like to help with the restoration of Pitts Chapel, send donations to:
Pitts Chapel United Methodist
600 N. Benton Ave.
Springfield, MO 65806.