KNIGHTSTOWN — As a child, she went to the church yard with her grandmother to prepare for the annual homecoming. Those setting up used sickles to cut the grass in the yard.
Now retired from Eli Lilly, Priscilla Jackson Phelps is still part of the annual homecoming service at Beech Church near Carthage.
The building and nearby church cemetery are the last visible landmarks from the Beech Settlement, a nineteenth-century farming community and Indiana’s oldest African-American settlement. The area also included stops on the Underground Railroad, Phelps said, with routes including Rushville, Carthage, Knightstown and Greensboro Pike as escaped slaves headed next to Henry County and eventually to Canada.
Despite the Beech Settlement’s place in state history, the church building has suffered over its more than 180 years; in May, it was named to Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered list. But efforts are underway to raise money to preserve the structure.
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“It almost doesn’t have a foundation,” Phelps said during a presentation Sept. 28 at Historic Knightstown Inc., where she and siblings Judith Jones and Douglas Jones shared the story of the church and its builders.
It rests on four large boulders, she said, and architects who assessed it recommended raising the church, building a more stable foundation under it, and easing the building back down onto a sturdier base. With more solid footing, it’s expected to be better able to last for future generations.
The building might need a foundation now, but the siblings — descendants of Beech settlers — say that over the years it has provided one.
They tell of a tenacious group of free black people that made its way from North Carolina in the 1820s. Douglas Jones said a woman helping guide the group had lighter skin, and if the settlers encountered people who questioned the group passing through, they pretended to be slaves.
“She was passing as the owner,” he said.
But they were not slaves. The free people were heading north — often following Quaker families who would help them, Phelps said — to seek better opportunities.
“Our ancestors wanted more for us,” Judith Jones said.
The retired teacher, a graduate of Ball State University, credits her family for its emphasis on education through the years.
“They passed that perseverance on to our generation,” she said.
The Beech settlement provided a foundation not only for the families there but for another settlement. Some families left in 1831 after Nat Turner led a rebellion among his fellow slaves in Virginia. Fearing backlash in other areas, many families pressed farther north.
“Even though all of our people had papers (proving) they were free, those papers could be torn up very easily,” Phelps said, and people could quickly be seized and moved to a county where no one knew them.
Those who left became the Roberts settlement in Hamilton County; descendants gather there for a reunion each summer.
“The Beech” and other settlements eventually dwindled, as people sought opportunities in larger cities. But amid the grove of beech trees, the church that had also served as a schoolhouse and library remained.
The church was built after a log church building at the site burned. A donor stipulated the site could remain in the hands of the settlement’s descendants as long as it had at least one service a year. Since the first homecoming in 1914, the tradition has continued.
In its heyday, the service and reunion drew about 1,000 people. Phelps remembers cars three to four rows deep and parked along the roadside. Those gathered came from as far as New York, California or Chicago, she said.
These days, the annual gathering on the last Sunday of August draws about 125. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, the denomination the settlers chose by vote in the 1830s, sends people to conduct a service.
A few days before, Phelps and other family members haul water, a generator and a shop vac to clean before the gathering. The family perseverance Judith Jones spoke of makes them up to the task at a site with no water or electricity.
Since the church’s endangered designation, efforts are taking shape to preserve the church.
The project requires about $200,000, Douglas Jones said, and a donor has offered to match contributions up to $100,000. The effort also received a $25,000 grant from a foundation in Indianapolis, some of which was used for the architectural assessment. A fundraiser including tours was set for Oct. 8, and work is under way to have the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Douglas Jones said the Indiana Landmarks list has drawn attention to saving the church building.
“They’ve really helped us quite a bit with public awareness,” he said. “We’re really on a good road to recovery.”
Tena Jones of Knightstown was among about 70 people attending the standing-room-only presentation at Historic Knightstown Inc. She said she knows the families and hopes the structure will be saved.
“When my kids were younger, they used to go out and help clean,” she said. “It’s a marvelous piece of history.”
Donations to the Beech Church work should be directed to Indiana Landmarks. You can give online at www.indianalandmarks.org/join-give/donate/ or write to the organization at 1201 Central Avenue,
Indianapolis, IN 46202. For more information, call 800-450-4534.