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News > Commentary - Celebrating Black History Month: taking a glimpse at the 19th Century African-American church and cemetery at Dover
Celebrating Black History Month: taking a glimpse at the 19th Century African-American church and cemetery at Dover

Posted 2/4/2010   Updated 2/4/2010 Email story   Print story


Commentary by John Murphy
436th AW Historian

2/4/2010 - DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- All U.S. Air Force Bases have similarities: the sounds of jet engines fill the air and the smells of aviation fuel spreading over the area like butter on bread. Perhaps the last thing you may relate to Dover Air Force Base is a 19th Century African-American cemetery. It does exist. The John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church and Cemetery site sits on Delaware Route 9, just a stone's throw away from the Air Mobility Command Museum's entrance. An interesting heritage is shared by the church and cemetery. Let's start at the beginning.

In 1867, local parties organized the John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church. A main governing body of this new establishment consisted of a nine-member board of trustees. Finding suitable and cost prohibited land, for a church and cemetery, became the number one priority for the board of trustees. A secluded and quiet area of land was selected, by the board. It was located just north of the John Dickinson plantation and southeast of the City of Dover, on Delaware Route 9. Charles Wharton owned the property and since he belonged to the nearby St. Jones Neck Methodist Episcopal Church, he fostered a friendly relationship with the new congregation. On Sept. 28, 1867, both parties agreed to the sale of the 40 by 60 yard lot for the reasonable price of $50.

Members of the congregation began constructing their new spiritual home. Their hard work resulted in the appearance of a one-story wood-framed church with small projecting opened areas; to be named the John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church. The church building set on a foundation of a series of red brick piers, a common construction practice during that time. Exterior decorations included designs in scrolled out facia boards, and a clay Italianate-style chimney pot set atop of the otherwise plain brick chimney. Inside the building, you were treated to painted plaster walls, and a series of plain wooden pews, arranged for central aisle access leading up to the communion rail in the front. A wooden pulpit stood behind the railing. Electrical service or indoor plumbing never graced this church, but was lit by kerosene lamps for nighttime meetings or services. Members used a privy located in the left rear corner of the property. All in all, the church preserved the congregation's modest and frugal style of living.

Since its inception, the John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church received support and encouragement from the nearby St. Jones Church. Outside friendly congregational assistance propelled the John Wesley congregation to spread Methodism for the next 75 years. They began as part of the circuit of small rural churches that comprised the Dover Circuit. Initially, a total of four or five churches made up the circuit, but that number would reduce to three by 1894. Over 30 churches formed the nucleus of what would grow to be a large vibrant church circuit over the next 100 years. Similar to a family, the minister served as the head of his congregation.

Unfortunately for the John Wesley Church, many of the serving ministers were either straight out of seminary school, or in the process of completing their religious studies. Few of these individuals did not stay in their position for extended periods of time. Throughout the history of the John Wesley Church, ministerial longevity only applied to a couple men: Reverend Dunn, who stayed on the circuit for five years and Reverend George Johns, who held the position the longest from 1944-1950 (six years), when the Dover circuit formally discontinued. In addition to instability of the minister position, the congregation also experienced many fluxes throughout time.

The church's congregational enrollment varied greatly through the years. At its height, the Dover circuit had 175 members in 1899, and its greatest decline occurred during the early 1930's when enrollment went from 87 to 46. By 1940, religious services stopped at all three circuit churches. The active congregations held their services together in local churches possessing strong congregational numbers. For the next 10 years, the physical structure of the John Wesley Church declined to such a point that in 1946 the roof split due to a large tree limb landing on it. During the next four years the building continued to deteriorate rapidly until its demolition and removal in 1950 by a local civic organization.

Although the church no longer physically occupies the land, the cemetery remains. This hallowed sanctuary provided a final resting place for many of the church's congregation. At the time of the church's demolition, more than 100 grave markers could be seen from the road. However, years of non-use and neglect caused a significant decrease in this number. Dover Air Force Base officials annexed the land in 1990. Disposition plans began shortly thereafter. The decision to refurbish the site was accepted and in completed in May 2009. If you remain still, you can still hear the echo, "Fair thee well, fair thee well. Until that great getting up in the morning, fair thee well. Amen."

(Information was provided by the Dover Black History Month Committee)

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