Dozens took to the streets of downtown Athens Sunday morning with the intention of marching through the city. This demonstration was not a social protest or a political statement but a celebration of history, community, and the 150th anniversary of Athens’ oldest African American place of worship.
Members of the First African Episcopal Methodist Church began their symbolic walk at 10 a.m. on July 31, the Athens Banner Herald reports, marching from Morton Theatre down Hull Street to First AME Church, singing hymns along the way.
The historic church began just after the end of the Civil War, as newly freed slaves looked to build their own congregation. In 1866, Rev. Henry McNeal Turner led a split with the white congregation of First Methodist, staking a claim on the church’s old building a century and a half ago.
In 1916, the church temporarily moved to Union Hall, which once stood near the spot where Morton Theatre now resides, making it the perfect location to start the march toward the building that was constructed one hundred years ago and still serves as a place of faith and fellowship for a large part of the Athens community.
The church is not only special in Athens because of its storied history, but because of what it means to the members who visit it every Sunday.
“The people here are always warm and loving. I couldn’t have asked for more,” said Freda Scott Giles, a member since 1995 who says she leaned on the rest of the congregation when her husband passed away six years ago.
Mary Britton, a member for over forty years, says that human connections are a reason why she enjoys First AME.
"It’s all about the fellowship with the people,” she said.
At the conclusion of the march, the congregation gathered outside the church, where the pastor Rev. Claude James told the crowd he was thankful that they had kept First AME alive for so many years.
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