Every time I drive by Grace A.M.E. Zion Church I think about William C. Smith. Born into slavery near Fayetteville in 1856, Smith earned a teaching certificate and learned the printing trade from northern, middle-class white missionaries in the 1870's. In 1882, he became the publisher of the Charlotte Messenger, the city's first black secular newspaper. For the next decade, Smith's Charlotte Messenger was the principal spokesman for what historian Janette Greenwood calls Charlotte's "black better class."
People like Smith believed that African Americans would only be accepted by the white community if blacks were upright, sober, well-behaved, and virtuous. Like most prominent African Americans, he was especially devoted to the prohibition of alcohol. Thomas Henry Lomax, an A.M.E. Zion bishop and a friend of Smith's, stated in 1881 that "Charlotte was haunted with more drunken men, in proportion to the population, than he had ever seen." In that year Charlotte had seventeen saloons and a beer garden and only 7,000 residents. One citizen reported that on Christimas Day, 1880, some of Charlotte's young men "presented a carnival of intemperance filled with reeling, drunken, youth."
W. C. Smith was a member of Clinton Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church, the city's oldest of that denomination. In 1886, after Smith and his fellow prohibitionists had been criticized by the pastor, 28 members, including Smith, decided to organize their own church. The new congregation adopted the name Grace Chapel and took as their motto "God, Religion and Temperance," which appears in Latin on the cornerstone of the present Gothic Revival style church building that was completed in 1902. This imposing brick edifice, which replaced an earlier frame structure, was dedicated on July 13, 1902.
Two other outstanding members of Grace A. M. E. Zion Church were Dr. J. T. Williams, a highly respected educator, physician, businessman, and civil servant, and Thad L. Tate, who operated a barbershop that had among its customers white leaders like W. H. Belk and George Ivey.
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Survey & Research Report: Grace A. M. E. Zion Church