An Archaeology of Sunday in Black and White
Phillip Hodge, Archaeologist Supervisor
Tennessee Department of Transportation
Pickett Chapel Community Archaeological Project
There are two United Methodist congregations in Lebanon, a small town about 30 minutes east of Nashville in Wilson County, that both trace their beginnings to an unassuming 187 year old brick building known as Pickett Chapel. One congregation is black, the other is white. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously observed that “11 o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in American life.” His observation is unfortunately still true in many American communities, including Lebanon, and is reflected in the history of these two congregations and of the building from which they both began.
The story of Pickett Chapel begins with the first Methodist congregation in Lebanon, which was white and was organized in 1812. In 1827, they financed the construction of a meeting house on Market Street, a block off the public square in the newly chartered city of Lebanon. At that time, Pickett Chapel was called Seay’s Chapel and was constructed by enslaved African Americans, many of whom also attended services there. Services were held at Pickett Chapel until 1856, when white members of the congregation moved to a newly built church a block away. In 1964, this congregation moved to their current location on West Main Street and exist today as Lebanon First United Methodist Church, where, coincidentally, my family are members and attend weekly services.
It’s unclear what happened at Pickett Chapel between 1856 and the Civil War, but in 1866, just one year after Appomattox, thirty newly freed African Americans pooled their money and purchased the old church on Market Street for a sum of $1500, which equates to about $24,000 in today’s currency. Shortly thereafter, the newly formed black congregation rechristened Seay’s Chapel as Pickett Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church, after their first pastor, Reverend Calvin Pickett.
By the early 1970s, having outgrown Pickett Chapel, they built a new, larger church about a mile away and, in 1973 became known as Pickett Rucker United Methodist Church, again after the first pastor of the new church, Reverend T.G. Rucker. Pickett Chapel was soon sold and for the next two decades it was used as a community theater, before closing again and falling into disrepair. It was slated for demolition in 2007, when at the eleventh hour, several former congregants and descendants of the original 30 families who purchased Pickett Chapel in 1866, once more pooled their money. They took out second mortgages on their own homes and held fundraisers to again purchase the old church on Market Street. Stabilization and restoration efforts began shortly thereafter and continue to this day.
I got involved with Pickett Chapel somewhat coincidentally. In my job as a TDOT archaeologist, I’ve worked on archaeological projects in almost every part of Tennessee, except my hometown of Lebanon. My kids went to daycare next door to Pickett Chapel, and I’d drive by the old chapel every day to drop them off and always wonder if it had any archaeology. Fast forward to 2012. I’m in the local coffee shop eavesdropping on a conversation among members of the Wilson County Black History Committee (WCBHC) about, what else, Pickett Chapel. I eventually interrupted their conversation, introduced myself, and asked if I could do some archaeology at Pickett Chapel. They enthusiastically agreed and the rest, as they say, is history.
Our first weekend of fieldwork coincided with the WCBHC’s annual spring celebration on the grounds at Pickett Chapel, which, even though it’s open to the entire community, is especially focused on bringing together the congregations of Lebanon First and Pickett Rucker. At one point after the formal program, I looked around and saw just how many people from both congregations, young and old, black and white alike, were eager to participate and, most importantly, were asking questions about their own past. It was then that I realized this was much more than archaeological research – it was about memory, community, and reconciliation. And it was this realization that led to the transformation of the project from a conventional research study to one focused on the congregational descendants of Pickett Chapel, whereby participation in the archaeology itself becomes the vehicle for renewed connections.
Two years later, we have surveyed the archival sources, sampled the archaeology, and explored their potential to address more complex questions. Thanks to MTSU archaeology students and volunteers from the WCBHC, we’ve figured out that the artifacts are undisturbed and densely distributed across every part of the property we could investigate. Artifact analysis is ongoing at MTSU’s Archaeology Lab, but it appears that artifact diversity is high with all of the common historic classes present, in addition to abundant bone and plant remains. The assemblage is predictably dominated by nails, ceramics, and glass and appears to represent the entire site occupation from the early 19th century to the present. Six features have been discovered so far, including one previously unknown structure that is likely contemporaneous with Pickett Chapel. Preservation across the site is exceptional, in part due to the fact that the property hasn’t been developed and is capped with six inches or more of crushed limestone gravel that once formed a parking lot.
As an archaeologist, I find Pickett Chapel’s history and archaeology fascinating, but what’s really hooked me is its connection to the present. The white congregation at Lebanon First and the black congregation at Pickett Rucker are both daughters of that original 19th century church. Both congregations, black and white alike, acknowledge Pickett Chapel as an integral part of their own origin story and both claim it at different times in its life history. Circling back to Dr. King’s Sunday morning observation, I’m proud to report that some progress, however incremental, is being made. On January 19, 2014, the congregations of Lebanon First and Pickett Rucker held a joint service, which marked the first time since before the Civil War these congregations shared the same space and, because this key fact can’t be overlooked, the last time they were together, one congregation owned the other. It is to the credit of the leadership of both churches, due to their shared connections to Pickett Chapel that these congregations are now reaching out to one another through those timeless Methodist traditions of songs, sermons, and potluck suppers. And now, archaeology. For these descendant congregations, the archaeology of Pickett Chapel has become a link for discovering our commonalities, understanding our overlapping histories, and forming new relationships across the social and historical divide of race in American society.