A small church founded by former slaves in the late 1800s is preparing to save its unique history as part of Buckhead’s African-American life during a renovation of the sanctuary building and cemetery.
New Hope African Methodist Episcopal Church was first established in 1869 and has been in its current building since 1936. It’s preparing to celebrate its 150th anniversary next year.
The Buckhead Heritage Society is partnering with the project due to the church’s significance as one of the last remaining buildings that marks the African-American history of the area.
“It really is all that is left of a very active African-American community in that area,” said Tamara Bazzle, the Buckhead Heritage board president.
Rev. David Richards, who has been pastor at the 3012 Arden Road church for about a year, said the Buckhead community has been enormously supportive of the church, despite the changes the neighborhood has undergone in the last 130 years and divisions displayed by the recent mayoral election.
“We’ve been overwhelming supported by the Buckhead community, even with the racial tension,” he said. “The Buckhead community has poured out love and support.
Restoration plans include identifying, repairing and cleaning grave markers in the historic, sprawling cemetery across the road from the church. Some grave markers in the cemetery, which was established by 1889, have toppled or begun deteriorating, as seen in a recent tour.
The first burial in the cemetery is documented as 1889, but unmarked graves suggest there were some done earlier, according to the church’s 2008 application for National Register of Historic Places designation.
The church received the historic designation in 2009, making it eligible for some grants that could help fund the proposed projects.
To restore a cemetery of that age, a special approved chemical solution is required to clean the headstones, as well as extreme care, Bazzle said.
She plans to lead a workshop and seminar on how to restorations, drawing on her participation in other similar workshops.
A specific date hasn’t been set yet, but she plans to host it in the fall and will invite members of other churches and the community to attend, she said.
There are many graves that are unmarked, but to locate them all would be extremely expensive and fundraising would be needed, Bazzle said.
Buckhead Heritage has done similar work at Harmony Grove, a cemetery the organization restored as its signature project, she said.
“Of the remaining African-American cemeteries, it is one of the largest and very well-preserved,” she said of the New Hope cemetery.
Other planned improvements include repairing a ceiling leak; repainting; installing new sanctuary carpet for a “fresh look”; and possibly replacing the marquee sign outside with one that’s “more historically accurate,” Richards said.
The small sanctuary building’s blue carpeted floor is covered with enough pews for 200 people; a drum set, piano and organ used each Sunday for worship; a choir seating area; and the requisite pulpit.
Wood has been donated to repair the façade of the main church building, which has rotted and warped in the sun and rain, Richards said. The church needs to raise $50,000 to complete the repairs and then will start making the improvements, he said.
The congregation was founded in 1869, but the church building there today is not that old. A 1927 fire destroyed the original building, and the one standing now was completed in 1936.
The land was donated by a white Buckhead landowner, James H. Smith, to the congregation in 1872. Smith is now buried in the cemetery, Bazzle said.
Among the family names found throughout the cemetery are the Maddoxes, Irbys, Defoors, Paces and Calhouns. All are recognizable as early prominent white families in the Buckhead area, according to the National Register application.
According to a church history written by Elizabeth Few, the early church members had been previously enslaved and kept the white family names.
Those church members kept their connections to the families by continuing to work for them and lived in small African-American neighborhoods near the church, according to the history.
“It represents the contributions that newly freed African Americans made in the building of a community infrastructure in the post-Civil War South,” the National Register application states.
The church is now noted as “atypical” for its surroundings, which is mostly upper-income houses owned by white families, according to the document, which was completed in 2008.
Although most in the neighborhood are not members, Bazzle said a lot of people in the neighborhood care about the church for its historic status and importance.
“It’s part of history that should not be lost,” she said.
Over the years, some church members have had to move farther and farther away as development pushed them out of the area, Bazzle said.
A few of the 150 active members live in Buckhead, but most commute from places like south Fulton County, Douglasville, Woodstock or McDonough, Richards said.
Some are new members, but many have been attending for years or have family ties the church and don’t want to leave, despite their long distance, he said.
Some have been there much longer. Moses Few, Elizabeth Few’s husband, has attended all 91 years of his life, despite being pushed out of living in Buckhead many years ago.
Few said he grew up on Northside Drive and attended the school that was on the church grounds before it burned down in 1942.
His house was in disrepair, so his family moved to Margaret Mitchell Drive a few miles west. The house was later demolished for I-75 construction, pushing his family farther away.
He’s now lived in a house in west Atlanta for 52 years, but still drives to attend the church. His grandparents, sister and uncle are buried in the cemetery, he said.
“It is been very much a big part of my life,” he said. “There’s so much history there, and I want to see it preserved.”
CORRECTION: This article and its headline have been edited to correct the date the church was founded and its upcoming anniversary. The church was founded in 1869, not 1889, and will celebrate its 150th, not 130th, anniversary in 2019.