Written By: Elizabeth Grisham
Appalachia is rich in beauty and culture. There is no place quite like it, and for centuries lives here have woven together, like squares on a quilt, to create a patchwork image of the triumph and hardship; the victory and adversity that make up the human story. As our Nation celebrates Black History Month, we would like to take a moment to reflect on a remarkable piece of East Tennessee History that played out here in Grainger County, only a few feet away from our beloved Bryan House: The History of Henderson Chapel AME Zion Church.
Nestled quietly in the hub of downtown Rutledge, sits a quaint and unassuming little building. But this building isn’t just any chapel. It housed Historic Henderson Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the first black congregation in Grainger County, and one of the oldest in the South.
The AME Zion congregation itself, according to common knowledge, organized in the area sometime around 1833, although there are no formal records to confirm this. At the time, there were only two other Methodist churches in Grainger County, both of which were white congregations. Henderson Chapel Parishioners first met in homes of the members. It is not clear how long this went on, but in 1887, records indicate that Henderson Chapel Services were held in the original County Court House which had been purchased by a local Presbyterian Church in 1846 when the new Grainger County Courthouse was built. Sometime in the Post-Civil War era the old courthouse building was passed to the Henderson Chapel Congregation, which may be a testament to the sympathies of Eastern Tennessee towards the Union Stance on Slavery during the Civil War.
In 1890 Dr. Joseph Hoffmeister, a local physician, and an elder in the Presbyterian Church, donated the parcel of land on Church Street, where the Chapel stands today. It was named in honor of Mary E. Henderson, Dr. Hoffmeister’s daughter. During this same time, the original Grainger County Courthouse was being dismantled, and lumber from the building erected in 1801 was donated and used to construct a new building for the Henderson Chapel Congregation. The Chapel still stands proudly, although services are no longer held there. According to Grainger County Resident Kenny Daily, one of the last members of the Henderson Chapel Congregation, services were regularly held as late as the year 2001.
In 2008 on Make a Difference Day, a day that millions of Americans unite in a common mission to improve the lives of others, Clinch Powell RC&D’s Appalachia C.A.R.E.S., AmeriCorps Program hosted scores of AmeriCorps Members from all over the state who came to Rutledge to clean, paint and make minor repairs to the Chapel.
The story of Henderson Chapel is as remarkable as the building itself. It has stood the test of time, and remains in wonderful condition even after 125 years of service to its congregation. The Chapel has been as resilient as the people who have worshiped there, and it remains a cherished part of the history and tradition of Grainger County.