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Restoration work begins on historic Muncie chapel

March 25, 2014

MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) — Holes in the stained glass windows, crumbling concrete steps blocked off by yellow caution tape and a sign with chipped white paint on the borders greet entrants at historical Shaffer Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is located in the heart of Whitely.

That will soon change.

The Whitely Community Council and others in the community decided three years ago to raise funds to repair the dilapidated church. They completed that effort this month, raising about $60,000.

“We’re not members, but we value it as being a real asset to our community,” said Whitely council president Cornelius Dollison, who married his wife, Mary, 52 years ago at Shaffer. “It involves our history of Whitely community. Letting this building go down, we lose all of that history. It’s very worthwhile to invest our time and effort to preserve this.”

A crowd of nearly 50, including longtime civil rights activist Hurley Goodall, Mayor Dennis Tyler, the Dollisons and Shaffer Chapel pastor Chris Randolph, attended a groundbreaking ceremony Sunday afternoon at the church.

“My hope is that it’s going to be an important part of us sharing our history, not just with the Muncie community but across the state and the entire United States,” Tyler told The Star Press (http://tspne.ws/1m3NHwm ).

The refurbishing of the structure, signage and uneven landscape is scheduled to begin this week. The Whitely Community Council hired S.A. Boyce Corp. for the project, and Randolph said, if Mother Nature cooperates, the upgrades will be complete by the end of April.

Randolph and Cornelius Dollison said the project includes putting in two Roman pillars, repairing stained glass windows, moving the historic site sign to the opposite side in front of the windows, installing an electronic sign on the street corner and making the facility accessible to the disabled. Tyler said the sidewalk in front and alongside the church will be repaired, too, when the weather permits.

Founded in 1893, Shaffer Chapel is the oldest standing public school building in Muncie and is the site where former pastor and mortician J.E. Johnson embalmed the bodies of two black men lynched in Marion in 1930 in the last documented lynching in the northern United States.

The lynching occurred after the two men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, were arrested for allegedly raping a white resident. Johnson volunteered to embalm the bodies.

Abel Meeropol wrote a poem titled “Bitter Fruit” and then the song titled “Strange Fruit” about the Marion lynching. Famed musician Billie Holiday recorded and sang the song in 1939. The Holiday version is in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Ku Klux Klan members descended on Whitely in search of Johnson and the two bodies, but black residents held an all-night vigil at Shaffer and the Klan eventually left the site without harming Johnson.

“The church is a very historical monument for Muncie,” said Randolph, whose congregation numbers in the 40s. “It symbolizes reconciliation, diversity and all of the good moral things you want in a community.”

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Information from: The Star Press, http://www.thestarpress.com

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