Known by its tower rising at the corner of Third and Crawford Streets, Terre Haute’s Allen Chapel has played a critical role in African-American history.
Recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, the structure was a congregation’s “new church” when it was rebuilt in 1913. A century later, it has endured to become the oldest functioning black church in the western part of the state.
Bishop William Paul Quinn organized Terre Haute’s first black church in 1837. A small white house to the west of the current church housed the African Methodist Episcopalian parish.
Allen Chapel was named for Richard Allen, the slave who founded the AME Church in Philadelphia in 1787.
At a time when education was severely restricted for African-American residents of Indiana, a school operated out of Allen Chapel’s basement. The minister who established the school would go on to greater renown as the nation’s first African-American senator. Hiram Rhoads Revel represented Mississippi in 1870 and 1871.
The first black person to graduate from high school in Terre Haute attended the Allen Chapel grade school, as did the first black teacher in Terre Haute. Allen Chapel school alumnus James Sidney Hinton eventually served as the first African-American in the Indiana legislature.
While children learned their letters in the basement, Allen Chapel was home to another sort of underground activity. Slaves escaping Southern bondage made the church a regular stop on their route. A tunnel connected the old church to the Wabash River, where refugees would stow away on lumber boats headed for Canada.
The cornerstone of the current church was laid in 1870, but the sanctuary was rebuilt after the Easter Sunday tornado, and resulting fire, in 1913. When Indiana’s African Methodist Episcopalian churches held their 35th annual conference in 1874, the Allen Chapel played host. Over the years, black leaders from Frederick Douglas to Jackie Robinson have spoken from the chapel’s pulpit.
Since 1990, a phalanx of foundations, corporations and private donors has supported the restoration of Allen Chapel’s 1913 structure. The preservation extends to the chapel’s 1905 Verney Pipe Organ, the Iowa manufacturer’s only instrument still installed in its original location
With special thanks to Char Minnette of Friends of Historic Allen Chapel.