Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer
Ray’s Chapel was launched in Franklin in a quaint little building on Harrison Avenue in 1865 before later moving to Green Street. At a cost of $100, which was donated by neighbors in the area, a new structure for worship was built on the Green Street property provided by Nan and Matt Ray. Eventually the original structure deteriorated and was replaced in 1949 with the present building. The African American Methodist Episcopal Zion (AME Zion) church was chartered as a black denomination in 1801 and was established in 1820, 40 years before the Civil War.
Vice Mayor Barbara McRae presented to the Town Council on Saturday informing them of the church’s historical significance as the first black church in Franklin. McRae informed the board that the church was held in a trust and the only surviving trustee, Dot Gibson, wants to see something done with the historic building and wanted the town’s help.
As the last surviving trustee, Gibson gifted the church to the town of Franklin in the hopes that the building can be restored to its former state and serve the residents that live in the area.
McRae assured board members that the concrete building, which has roots that date back to the turn of the century, is structurally sound but could use some TLC. McRae’s vision includes restoring the property for community gatherings, historical programs, exhibits, a music venue or literary events.
Speaking to the importance of preserving the building, McRae noted that the church building is one of the few African American structures still standing in Macon County. The building is important in the preservation of Franklin history as it tells stories of the old neighborhood, a once vibrant place whose residents represented the various strands of the African American experience in Macon County. Eddie Ray, the “Music Man,” grew up nearby and worshiped at the church as a youth. J.D. Shepherd, the county’s only black commissioner, was an active member of the church.
“The restoration would show the town’s commitment to historic preservation; Once restored, the church will serve as an anchor for Green Street and as a symbol of revitalization,” said McRae. “The restored chapel could fill an important role as a community center in a neglected part of town and kick off further improvements.”
“Restoration would honor the black residents whose lives were once entwined with the church and show that the town values the contributions and uniqueness of all its citizens,” she added.
Monday night, the town council voiced their support of the restoration project, and directed Town Attorney John Henning Jr. to draw up a deed for the property acquisition. Once completed, the town will be looking to partnership with a nonprofit organization to help provide oversight and management of the property.
The only cost to the town for the acquisition of the church is that the town commits to preserving the chapel as a historic property and any legal costs accrued during the process.
During the board retreat, the town also discussed the Whitmire Property, another property owned by the town council on the east side of town. After hearing from a consulting firm what is best for the property, the board remains split on the future use of the property.
Council member David Culpepper, Mayor Bob Scott, and Council member Brandon McMahan want to see the park developed into a passive park that the public can use now, and preserve the property for future development if that better suits the town at a later date. Other council members, including Dinah Mashburn and Joe Collins think that perhaps that the best use of the property would be to do nothing at all and to keep the property under town ownership until the town can better profit off of a sale or alternative use other than a park.
“Why do we have to do anything at all,” asked Mashburn. “I am sure the county owns property and no one is telling them they have to develop it or turn it into a park. Just because we own it doesn’t mean we should do anything with it.”
Collins noted that if a park is what the board wanted to look at creating, there is other property, such as seven acres owned by Macon County on frogtown, that could better serve as a park. While the town has ownership of the seven acres Collins referenced, he said asking the county to give the town the property with the intent of a park might be better than developing the Whitmire Property.
The town also discussed the possibility of revitalizing the Gazebo on town square, which is used all summer for Pickin’ on the Square and is the main stage for festivals throughout the year. The gazebo is on county-owned property, and the lease between the county and town for the town to utilize that facility expires in May. Over the last few years, town leaders have debated upgrading the facility and building a new gazebo. Collins said that he spoke with relatives who perform on the stage throughout the summer and said they like the charm that the Gazebo has and didn’t see a need to upgrade it.
While some repairs are needed, Collins said he thinks the gazebo is sufficient the way it is. Constructing bathrooms on the gazebo has also been a frequent discussion among the board, but was something that garnered little support during the retreat. Currently, the county courthouse remains open for Pickin’ on the Square and town festivals for the use of the bathroom facilities. But the county is currently undergoing evaluation of courthouse security, at the request of the Superior Court Judge William Coward, and may close the bathroom facilities when the courthouse isn’t open. If that happens, the only other public restrooms available downtown would be inside of town hall. Collins said before more discussion of the bathrooms occurs, a conversation needs to be had with the county about continuing to use their bathroom or looking at another joint option.