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National Register: First United Presbyterian Church

312 N. Jackson Street, Athens built 1892


The First United Presbyterian Church, built circa 1892, is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A for its locally significant associations with African American ethnic heritage and social history. It is also eligible for the National Register under Criterion C because it represents the late Gothic Revival Style that was prevalent among religious institutions in the late 19th and early centuries. The nominated property served as a community center for African Americans in McMinn County and also served as a temporary school for African American children from 1925-1926.


After the Civil War, former slaves throughout the South were searching for a new identity and looked for a place that would offer them some form of training and education so they could develop the necessary skills to be successful and attain status. Many blacks began to create their own institutions where they could learn and care for each other. The primary community center for African Americans was the church. In Athens, a group of free African Americans in the antebellum era, created a community called the “Free Hill” Society. In 1865, led by Reverend William Heyward Ferguson, African Americans worshipped at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church, located near the intersection of North Jackson Street and Highway 30 in Athens. Shortly after the Civil War, in 1866, the Beth Salem Community, a group of newly emancipated slaves located southeast of Athens, began their congregation and church known as the Beth Salem Presbyterian Church.


The First United Presbyterian Church of Athens, Tennessee, organized their congregation in 1889 in a dance hall building, located on the corner of North White Street and Roy Street where the present church building sits today. In 1890, Reverend Jacob Lincoln Cook, a native of Athens, began the United Presbyterian mission in the dance hall building. Mr. J.L. Cook was born in Athens in 1870 and was the son of former slaves, George and Amelia Cook. He received his bachelor’s degree from Knoxville College in 1888 and entered the Allegheny Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to prepare for the Presbyterian ministry. After becoming an ordained minister and beginning his mission, the African American community was in need of a larger building for worship.


The late Gothic Revival First Presbyterian Church building was constructed by some of its charter members and early founders in 1892 for the congregation and Rev. Cook’s mission. The 40’ x 60’ brick building, erected by Rodger Sherman, Dave Logan, George McKeldin, and George Henderson, represents the late 19*^ and early 20'^ century African American craftsmanship, which followed the tradition of their enslaved ancestors’ building techniques. The brick masonry on the exterior of the building and the stone wall masonry along the front entrance of the church are

excellent examples of this building tradition.


The First United Presbyterian Church, through the Freedman’s Board, assisted with the

establishment of the Athens Mission for the Colored People. The board contributed $2,000-$2,500 annually to the mission, which was among 80 missions in the South. During a time when blacks had limited opportunities, these missions, typically in churches, provided a safe haven for African Americans who needed shelter, strength, and a Christian brotherhood and sisterhood network."


Soon after the establishment of the mission and the construction of the new church building, Reverend Jacob Cook, along with fellow mission workers Henrietta Mason, Mary Byars, Fannie Jackson, James Cleage, and Professor Pitts, organized the Athens Academy, which was a three room building located on Depot Hill across the street from the church. The Athens Academy provided great learning opportunities for black students in the Athens area and East Tennessee region. The school was established from funds of the United Presbyterian Church and the Freedman’s Board. The academy, “places an education within the reach of young people of limited means.” Due to the great success of the school, a new school building, twice the size of the first building, was constructed on the corner of North Jackson Street and Green Street. The Athens Academy became recognized as one of best schools for African Americans in the South.


Reverend J.L. Cook continued to serve as pastor of the First United Presbyterian Church and principal of the Athens Academy until 1900, when he moved to the Henderson Institute in Henderson, North Carolina. He died two years later, but left an impact over the church, mission, and the academy. In fact, young men involved in the academy, like the Cleage brothers, went on to establish United Presbyterian Churches in Detroit and Indianapolis.


After Cook left in 1900, the church saw four more pastors take over during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Rev. John Arter, Rev. D.F. White, Rev. John Brice, and Rev. C.H. Wilson all served as pastors of the First United Presbyterian Church and principals of the Athens Academy. For a short time, from 1925-1926, the First United Presbyterian Church was used as a school when the Athens Academy was destroyed by a fire. A new school opened in December of 1926 with funds from McMinn County, the City of Athens, and the Julius Rosenwald fund, which provided funds for African American schools in the rural South. The Athens Training School, as it was known, had nine grades, 150 students, and included six classrooms, and an auditorium. Professor W. E. Nash, a teacher at Athens Academy and member of First United Presbyterian Church, became the school’s first principal and served until 1953 when Professor E. Harper Johnson succeeded him. The school’s name was eventually changed to the “J.L. Cook School” to

honor the spirit and work of the late reverend. It closed in the mid-1960s during the desegregation of southern schools.


Reverend C.H. Wilson, who took over as pastor of the First United Presbyterian Church in 1911, served in his position for nearly 50 years. In addition, Mr. Wilson served as the principal of the Athens Academy from 1911-1926. His longstanding service to the church, mission, school, and the African American community in Athens was a testament to the early works of Rev. J.L. Cook and the importance of the church as a community center. During his tenure (1911-1958) church membership increased, which led to renovations in the church’s basement.


The church merged with the Southern Presbyterian Church in 1983 and was served by student pastors from the Johnson C. Smith Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. In the late 1980s, the church merged with the East Tennessee Presbytery and continues to worship with a congregation of approximately thirty people. The First United Presbyterian Church serves as one of the few remaining late Gothic Revival church buildings in McMinn County. The church, for over one hundred years, has been of great service to the community and it continues to represent African American culture and religion in Athens and McMinn County.


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