The story behind the Cherry Street African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dothan, Alabama plays out like a classic drama of good versus evil; might versus right. Today it’s a classic red brick church; the oldest in Dothan and recognized as the “Mother Church of the A.M.E. Denomination in Alabama.”
It wasn’t always like that. The church began in the mid-1800s as Colored Methodist Church. Rev. Pryor, the first pastor, had a small wooden structure built in 1877 on land donated by Ms. Elvira Guilford, a Black Dothan landowner and changed the name to Gaines Chapel. Its rise from an obscure chapel to a Dothan historic landmark is due mainly to the efforts of one man, the second pastor, Rev. Hightower.
|Historic Marker for church||Cornerstone of church|
Rev. William Jefferson Hightower probably never thought of himself as a civil rights pioneer but without him, this historic church would not stand in the heart of Dothan today.
I visited the church and met Cheryl Whiting, church historian, and Francina Morales, longtime church member and church musician to learn about the church history. They told of the building of the church and how it once faced a side street and when the new church was built, it was turned to face the newly named Cherry St.
|Cheryl and Francina are proud to show off the interior of Cherry St. A.M.E. Church|
Francina told of her mother going to Selma for the marches. She told of Rev. Billings acquired the Hammond organ which was a big deal for a Black church. The pipes are still in the church today. They both told of the church being built brick by brick. Rev. Hightower raised the money to build a new church but when he approached the city’s only brickyard owner, he refused to sell them to a Black man.
They put me in touch with James Morgan, III, Rev. Hightower’s great great great grandson, who was very helpful in giving me information. According to Mr. Morgan, his great great great grandfather was born on January 12, 1868, the child of a white father and a Black mother. He was raised shuttled back and forth between both families. His white father did see that young William Hightower received an education; not always easy for a Black child in that era.
It was in about 1903 that Rev. Hightower became pastor of what was then Gaines Chapel A.M.E. Church in Dothan. He saw the need for a more sturdy church and with his congregation raised $8000. When the brickyard owner refused to sell him the bricks, Rev, Hightower was undaunted. According to Mr. Morgan, “He initiated a plan whereby members of all ages in the Black community began to ‘liberate’ bricks from white work sites and abandoned buildings until enough had been gathered together to start to build.”
|Rev. Hightower photo courtesy of James Morgan III|
Francine’s grandmother was one of the girls who gathered bricks. Today, the story is honored by a mural commemorating the Cherry St. AME Church. (See mural story here)Today, the church stands tall and proud as a monument to a man who would not give up.
Cherry Street AME Church was never the site of any significant marches or protests in the 1960s but it helped form the character of at least one significant activist in the Civil Rights movement. According to an article in Selma Times Journal, Bishop Isaiah Hamilton Bonner, prelate of AME churches in Alabama, directed Rev. P.H. Lewis, pastor of Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church to defy the injunction. According to Bonner’s son-in-law, Jim Stallings who was an eyewitness to the conversation this is what happened. Bonner, on being told that there was an injunction against any church opening its doors to the Civil Rights workers, replied “What? Lewis, ain’t no white man is going to tell me who to let use that church, that church was built by black folk, for black folk. I am paid by the African Methodist Church, not the federal government. Lewis, you open up those doors.”
Bishop Bonner had served as pastor at Cherry Street AME Church from 1926 to 1929. It’s easy to see who he learned from. Although the phrase “Civil Rights Movement” had not been formed in his time, Rev. Hightower helped build the foundations of the Civil Rights Movement one brick at a time.
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