During the national celebration of Black History Month, Turner Chapel AME Church has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places, which is the nation’s official list of properties considered worthy of preservation. The church was built in 1927 by the Calvary United Brethren Congregation and purchased in 1963 by the Turner Chapel AME Church.
The National Register lists the building as the “Calvary United Brethren-Turner Chapel AME Church.” This name recognizes both the congregation who built the architecturally significant church building, and the Turner Chapel AME congregation for its significance in Fort Wayne’s civil rights history in a peaceful 1969 protest to desegregate Fort Wayne Community Schools.
“On behalf of the congregation of Turner Chapel AME Church we are honored to receive this recognition,” Pastor Kenneth Christmon said. “This congregation traces back to the first Black people to settle in Fort Wayne. The historic recognition is for the 173-year history of speaking out for social justice and equity in the community.”
In the early 1960s Fort Wayne Community Schools, and the other three systems in Allen County, were created by state legislation. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act enforced desegregation of schools, and in 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court further ordered integration of school systems. FWCS struggled to integrate the elementary schools; as the 1969-1970 school year approached the Fort Wayne Ministerial Alliance, a local group led by 15 Black ministers, demanded that FWCS have a plan to desegregate the elementary schools by August. When it was apparent no plan was coming, the group called for African American families to boycott the FWCS and send their children to “Freedom Schools,” starting September 3, 1969.
There were six churches who set up classrooms and hosted the schools; the curriculum included learning about black history and significant African Americans in history. The Freedom School with the highest attendance, peaking at 283, was the Freedom School at Turner Chapel AME.
The boycott led to as much as a 70% decrease in enrollment at four targeted elementary schools. On September 10, 1969, three members of the Ministerial Alliance and other Fort Wayne leaders met with State School Superintendent Richard Wells, at his invitation, for over two hours. After the meeting Wells said “both sides showed a sincere desire to resolve the issues and I hope…a decision can be reached to end the boycott.” On September 12, 1969, the students returned to their regular schools after school officials agreed to establish an integration policy.
“The story of leadership in the Freedom Schools boycott in 1969 is one of the many illustrations of Turner Chapel’s long history as Fort Wayne’s first African American congregation, and the congregation’s decades of concern for the African American people of the city,” Pastor Christmon added. “We are also happy that our beautiful church has been recognized for its architectural significance.”
The Turner Chapel AME church building is a notable example of the Gothic Revival style with Tudor Revival influences. It retains original architectural integrity, and it features elements associated with the Gothic Revival style including pointed-arch windows, brick construction, hood moldings over windows, window tracery, pointed-arch doorways, buttresses, and towers with crenellated parapets. Aspects of Tudor Revival architecture are also present as seen by the use of gables with parapets, alternating stone work, and door surrounds with flattened pointed arches.
Turner Chapel AME is the third National Register listing in Southeast Fort Wayne. St. Peters Church & School was listed in 1991, and the Fort Wayne Coca-Cola Plant on Pontiac Street was listed in 2021 as part of its rehabilitation into housing. Turner Chapel is the first listing in Fort Wayne with significance in local civil rights history.
The effort to gain the National Register listing was a partnership of Turner Chapel AME Church, Fort Wayne Community Development, and ARCH, Inc. Turner Chapel congregation member Gwendolyn Morgan contacted Community Development in 2018.
“I am happy that this project has brought recognition to the history of Turner Chapel AME Church both nationally and in the Fort Wayne community,” said Morgan. “We want to keep the church vital and energized as a place of refuge, hope, peace, and renewal in the community. We are so pleased to celebrate our history during Black History Month!”
The Turner Chapel AME Church Building gained Fort Wayne Local Historic Designation in 2019.