There’s rich, local African American history hidden in plain sight and waiting to be discovered in Fort Wayne. If you have ever driven East from downtown Fort Wayne on Jefferson Boulevard heading toward Indiana Tech, then you have seen Fort Wayne’s first and oldest black church. Turner Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded here in 1849 and still serves faith and love to our community today.
WHAT TO SEE:
Within the Turner Chapel A.M.E. Church’s historic and distinctive gothic revival style architecture is a beautiful sanctuary, cultural center, library and nutrition center all focused on helping and serving our community:
The Richard Allen Cultural Center, named after the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, contains a visual history of African American HEroes and SHEroes and a pictorial history of Turner Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The Henry McNeal Turner Library, named after the politician, activist and first African American A.M.E. Church Bishop, offers a collection of books for children and adults to promote the importance of education and learning to read and write. The A.M.E. church is a big proponent of education.
The James and Marjorie Graham Health, Wellness and Nutrition Center, named in honor of church members Dr. James and Marjorie Graham, provides a meeting place for Faith, Food, Family, Fellowship and LOVE.
WHAT TO KNOW:
Becoming the first black church in Fort Wayne was not easy. The journey was filled with racism and discrimination. In fact, the African Methodist Episcopal Church itself was born out of racial discrimination within the Methodist church.
According to Turner Chapel A.M.E. Church historical documents, “One Sunday in November 1787, Richard Allen and other Black worshipers who attended St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia were refused a request for a prayer room. They were pulled from their knees while praying. They were asked to leave the church, which they did in body. However, Richard Allen did not lose faith in Christianity. Instead, he began to organize a new congregation, The African Methodist Episcopal Church.”
In 1787, Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and others established the Free African Society in Philadelphia. The AME Church was officially recognized in 1815.
While the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia was sparked by racism, the future of Turner Chapel A.M.E. Church in Fort Wayne was strengthened by philanthropy.
Even though Turner Chapel AME Church was founded in Fort Wayne in 1849 and AME trustees had purchased a lot on Jefferson Street between Hanna and Francis Streets, they were prevented from building a church due to Indiana’s exclusionary “black laws” enacted in 1851. Not only did these laws strongly discourage African Americans from settling in the area, by 1860, the black population of more than one hundred had declined by a third, while the white population had doubled.
In 1869, in an act of consciousness and philanthropy, Emerine H. Hamilton, the wife of a wealthy Fort Wayne business owner, donated land at Wayne and Francis Streets. That same year, AME officers bought the former St. John’s German Reformed Church and moved it to the land donated by Hamilton. It was later renamed Turner Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in honor of Reverend Henry McNeil Turner, a black chaplain who served during the Civil War and later became a bishop in the AME Church.
In 1888, Turner Chapel built a larger facility on the same site making it the first church building erected by an African American congregation in Fort Wayne.
In 1963, Turner Chapel moved to its present location at 836 East Jefferson Boulevard.
While much is said about being the first African American church and congregation in Fort Wayne, Kenneth Christmon, senior pastor at Turner Chapel A.M.E., believes thanks must also be given to Mrs. Hamilton whom he calls a woman of honor, conscience and philanthropy.
“To speak of our history without recognizing the contribution of all is counter to the true power of our nation – ‘one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all’,” explained Pastor Christmon. “Turner Chapel is a local church in the city with a heart for the City of Fort Wayne.”
Turner Chapel’s heart for the city also includes the fight for Civil Rights. In 1969 when efforts by the African American community to desegregate the city’s elementary schools failed, the Ministerial Alliance, led by 15 African American ministers, called for a boycott in the form of African American students withdrawing from public schools. On September 3, 1969, classrooms for the students known as “Freedom Schools” were set up in several churches in Fort Wayne including Turner Chapel. On September 12, 1969, school officials agreed to establish an integration policy and students returned to their regular schools.
In October 2019, Turner Chapel AME Church became a locally designated historic district in Fort Wayne.
As of February 2022, it is now officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Turner Chapel AME Church - History you can feel!
Turner Chapel A.M.E. Church is located at 836 East Jefferson Boulevard in Fort Wayne.
This post was originally published in March 2021. Last Updated: February 2022