Pickett Chapel eyes full restoration

Sinclaire Sparkman • Updated May 18, 2017 at 9:00 AM

The Wilson County Black History Committee got some good news recently with an appropriation of $25,000 from Wilson County that may soon be approved for use.

The Black History Committee plans to use the funds to pay off the remainder of the mortgage on Pickett Chapel, a historic church on Market Street in Lebanon that was bought by African-Americans after the Civil War. 

“The county wants to figure out ways that we could help them,” said Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto. “It would be a great tourism site and something to help preserve history.

The appropriated funds still need approval from the Budget Committee and Wilson County Commission, but supporters are hopeful that they could go through within the next month or so. 

“The money has been set aside in the budget, but any time we use money it has to go through the proper channels,” said Annette Stafford, a Wilson County commissioner. “The money is there, and if the money is not spent by the end of the [fiscal] year, it will go back into the general fund. I just don’t want this part that has already been set aside to be allocated in a different direction.”

Stafford said the Black History Committee should have the funds in hand by the end of June. 

Mary Harris, president of the Black History Committee, helped form the committee in 1994 and attended church at Pickett Chapel as a child. 

“We spent a lot of time there, because my mother and her twin sister were very active. We were always sponsoring something. My cousin, my siblings and I, we had to be there with them, so the connection is just so real and important to me. That’s one of the reasons I want to see this building saved,” Harris said. 

The Black History Committee formed around the idea of preserving and documenting black history in Wilson County.

“I’ve always had an interest in history and, of course, black history has been my main interest,” Harris said. 

More than 20 years ago, Roy Bailey came to Harris and said, “Mary, if you can get a committee together, we can write a black history book.” And so the Wilson County Black History Committee was formed. 

“Roy Bailey wanted to preserve and document our history. He said, ‘Mary, we could write a book.’ I thought, are you kidding? But I fell for it and being a part of Pickett Chapel all of my life, and with the rich history of that church, it just became a passion and a drive that we wanted to do it. He asked me to find other citizens who would be interested in the project,” Harris said.

The committee worked for years uncovering history of black people in Wilson County. As much of African-American history was undocumented for centuries, the group found much of their information through interviews with older members of the community and whatever could be dug up at the Wilson County Archives. 

Bailey would be president of the Black History Committee until his death in 1997. Harris, who had served as vice president, then took the helm of the committee and spurred on efforts to complete the book. Harris said her husband, Harry, has always been her strongest supporter.

“It was hard,” Harris said. “It took us five years just about to get information submitted.” 

In the end, the book, “In Our Own Voices,” was published in 1999, two years after Bailey’s death. The committee then set sights on other ways to celebrate and preserve black history in Wilson County. 

In 2007, the Black History Committee opened a mortgage of $62,500 on Pickett Chapel. State historian Carroll Van West visited the property to assess the historical value and whether the building could be preserved, and he put his full support behind the project. 

Stafford said Van West recently visited the property again, and plans to make the push to get the building on the Civil War Trail, a historical project run by the state. 

Built in 1827, Pickett Chapel was one of the first brick buildings in the county. It was built by enslaved African-Americans for a white Methodist congregation. After the Civil War, freed African Americans bought the building and held services there until 1973 when the congregation moved to Pickett-Rucker United Methodist Church. Later on, the building was used as a community theater until it was left vacant in the ’90s. 

“I don’t know if it was about to fall down in 2007, but it was in pretty bad shape,” said Phillip Hodge, local archaeologist and member of the Black History Committee. “The first tasks that the Wilson County Black History Committee took on were to stabilize the structure so that it would be safe to enter.”

So far, the restoration work has focused on repairing the structural integrity of the building. In 2010, a portion of the east wall was rebuilt, and repairs to the cupola and cornice took place in 2013. Both of these were funded by grants from the Tennessee Historic Commission.  

The most recent work completed was the drainage project in 2014, which helped to keep water away from the building with the installation of a French drain, as well as gutters from the early 1900s period. 

“There’s a lot of work that we have done on the building, but it’s not flashy work,” Hodge said. “It’s the necessary behind-the-scenes stuff. We’re really just now in 2017 at the point where we can start working on the aesthetic parts of the building.” 

Recent grants from State Farm and the Community Foundation will help fund the replacement of the front doors to their original historic look. 

As it stands, Pickett Chapel is well on its way to becoming a museum of Wilson County black history with the restoration efforts of the committee guided by availability of funds and volunteers. 

“My main goal is to see the building completed. Also to find someone that I can pass the torch to that really has the love and compassion of those of us that are involved,” Harris said. “We also want to pull in more members. It doesn’t matter what color. We just want it to be successful,” Harris said.

The Black History Committee will hold its sixth annual Heritage Peace Garden Celebration on Saturday at 11 a.m. on the grounds at Pickett Chapel, 209 East Market Street in Lebanon. The annual ceremony honors individuals that made a significant impact in the Wilson County community. Ms. Dean, WCOR Gospel show host, will be the MC for the event. Brother David Meek, Mayor Hutto, Mayor Bernie Ash and Professor Robert O’Brien will also participate in the program. Attendees will be invited to view the inside of Pickett Chapel.  

The building and existing Pickett-Rucker congregation recently celebrated its 190th anniversary. With the hope of getting Pickett Chapel’s mortgage paid off appearing on the horizon, the Black History Committee may soon realize its second big push to preserve the history of the black community in Wilson County. 

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