Many churches built by black Americans in the 1800s to serve the black community as schools, community centers and houses of worship, are slowly crumbling, disappearing and destined to be forgotten.
The congregation of Prospect A.M.E. Church in Georgetown is on a mission to preserve its church building to keep it from falling deeper into rack and ruin.
Built in 1867, Prospect A.M.E. needs a new roof and other renovations to survive and stand as a tribute to the history of black Methodists in Sussex County.
Percell Parker, a church trustee, says several members are working to raise $100,000 for a new roof, new flooring, doors and windows and other repairs.
“I’m trying to do my best to leave a legacy, if I can,” said Parker, who wants to renovate the church so that coming generations will have a tangible connection to African-American Methodism.
A resident of Slaughter Neck, Parker said he didn’t grow up attending services at Prospect, but he has grown fond of the church.
“I’ve been educating myself about the church’s history so I can fulfill my job responsibility of raising $100,000,” he said.
Parker recently came across the 1975 book “Sixteen Miles from Anywhere,” by William J. Wade, about Georgetown and how it became the county seat – because of its central location about 16 miles from any point in Sussex County.
The book recounts that in 1836, church trustees Moses Robinson, Timothy Jacobs, Curtis Jacobs, George Ratcliffe and Isaac Waples paid William Edward Harris 38.87 – no dollar sign was used – for land the church was built on. Graves on the land date to the 1830s.
The first building on the site, Wade wrote, served as both a church for the black community and as a schoolhouse for black children.
“Georgetown did not take kindly to the black school,” Wade wrote.
“In 1867, a black female teacher at the school was frightened out of town by a rock-throwing mob. A report of the incident stated that Georgetown residents were deeply opposed to any education for black children.”
Despite the incident, he wrote, the building continued to serve its dual purpose.
Around 1887, a new structure was built and in 1900, at a cost of $60, trustees received the deed for the building.
“The geographic location was at the time known as African Row,” Wade wrote. In 1959, pastors from African Methodist Episcopal churches Dickerson Chapel in Millsboro, Antioch in Frankford and Prospect, pooled to raise $1,677 to buy the parcel adjacent to the church on which a parsonage was built.
The Rev. Gerald William Scott, Prospect historian, wrote in his paper, “Prospect A.M.E. – The Definitive History,” that “For 150 years Prospect, 'the church by the railroad tracks,' has served as a lighthouse throughout the community of Georgetown, leading men and women, boys and girls from the turbulent rocks along the stormy seas of life, to the calming and restful shores where Jesus lovingly awaits. This is our heritage, and this will forever be our legacy.”
Today, Prospect’s shrinking congregation raises doubts about its future and its legacy.
Trustees agree that the church’s congregation is dwindling because it is aging. “They’re retired, and they’re older,” said John Williams Jr. who is working on fundraising with Parker.
Trustee Louise Henry said only about five of the church’s 30 or so members is younger than 50.
“The rest of us are from 60 to 90,” she said. Having such a small congregation of mostly retirees means money in the collection plate for day-to-day expenses is meager. Trustees estimate the church’s bank account balance is about $3,500, and that’s essentially already spent for the new roof.
“It’s leaking bad and a new one is going to cost us $6,000, which we don’t have. But the roofer is going to work with us and let us try to raise some money to pay for it,” Williams said.
In October, the church held a fundraiser featuring the Nichols Sisters, a singing group from Worcester County, Md. John said the event raised a little money.
“Whatever we took in that day, we blessed them with half of the money because they had to pay for gas,” Williams said. Other fundraisers are planned.
Prospect is in the First Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which contains seven conferences and covers the Northeast Corridor of the United States and Bermuda.
And although its a large district, Henry said it doesn’t have money to help pay for Prospect’s repairs.
“At this time the whole conference is struggling financially because we have a building that is our headquarters, and they’re still paying on that,” Henry said.
She said the church’s headquarters is in Philadelphia at 34th and Market streets.
Henry, who has visited the building and thinks it’s nice, said she doesn’t view it as an extravagance built at the cost of churches like her own.
Prospect A.M.E. Church is at 220 S. Railroad Ave., Georgetown. For additional information about raising money to restore the building, contact Percell Parker at 302-519-8446, or John Williams at 302-542-1086.