The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at Batesville in Independence County was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 16, 1986.
The oldest church building in Batesville, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church also houses the first black congregation in that city. Bethel AME Church represents the struggle for autonomy and survival by the freedmen during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era which followed. The organization of the church reflected their desire for independence and pursuit of cultural determinism. Architecturally, its modest form and truncated, tower-like steeple are typical of black churches throughout the rural areas of Arkansas.
Although the AME Church began in 1816 in Philadelphia as a defiant response to discrimination against blacks, the first Arkansas AME church was not organized until after the Civil War in Little Rock. The withdrawal of black Arkansans from the state’s churches represented their desire for independent authority and leadership. By 1871, the Batesville Bethel congregation purchased the site of the present church building. The selection of the site reflected, in part, an enforced isolation of the minority population of freedmen in Batesville. This segregation eventually resulted in the abandonment or expulsion of black institutions from much of the town and their relocation to a triangular ghetto bounded by Vine, Harrison, and St. Louis streets.
The original leaders of the Bethel congregation included many leaders of black Batesville, such as Charles Finley and two veterans of the 113th Colored Infantry, Samuel Greer and Sandy Willis. In 1875, M.F.A. Easton assumed the post of pastor, as well as teacher at the Freedman’s School, later closed by the irate white citizenry. Fund raising for a church building was headed by Easton’s successor, Reuben Johnson. In the December 8, 1880, Batesville Guard, Johnson thanked subscribers for their donations to the building fund, but warned recalcitrant businessmen their trade might suffer if they failed to contribute. A frame structure was completed the same month and on Christmas Day, burned as the result of a faulty stovepipe.
Resolved to erect a more resilient building, the congregation borrowed money “for building a church edifice” from Simon Adler, a Jewish merchant and private banker. Stone for the church was quarried locally, and, of the six black Batesville quarry workers listed in the 1880 Census, four were members of the Bethel AME Church. In 1881-1882, the new church building was completed.
As the course and form of Jim Crow Arkansas solidified, the Bethel AME Church became the center of a realigned black Batesville. After 1900, the black school and the Lafferty Memorial Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church joined black residences, businesses, and other religious and social institutions in their strictly defined and enforced segregation.
In 1910 a substantial wing was extended from the western elevation and the interior of the church was altered to accommodate its enlargement. Although the exact date of construction was not recorded, prior to 1914 an abbreviated tower-like steeple was added to the church entrance.
In 1920, a devastating fire completed the expulsion begun by white social, economic, and political pressures, and the local newspaper rejoiced in the removal of a number of “undesirable rent houses” occupied primarily by blacks. By the 1920s, the Bethel AME Church offered a tenuous refuge in an uneasy society, and several of the elevations as well as the entrance tower, conveyed the restrained ideal of the rural, black Arkansas church.
A number of obtrusive additions later marred some secondary elevations of the church. In 1956 a stone-veneered gable and shed vesting room and office was joined to the north elevation of the original building. At a later date, a small shed was also attached to the north elevation of the 1910 wing. In 1973, .the original belfry which surmounted the entrance tower was destroyed by a tornado and replaced with a less elaborate substitute.
Interview with Mr. and Mrs. Savoy Montgomery & Arthur Montgomery, May 15, 1985.
Britton, Nancy, “Building of Bethel AME Church”. Unpublished paper, 1985.
Fagg, Jane B. “Relocation of the Black School, 1905′. Unpublished paper.
John William Graves, “The Arkansas Separate Coach law of 1891,” in Arkansas in the Gilded Age, 1874-1900, Waddy William Moore ed. Little Rock, Ark.: Rose Publishing Company, 1976.