A photo of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church before its restoration.

CHILLICOTHE — The Grand River Historical Society allows you to take a walk and immerse yourself in Chillicothe’s history – from the first bread slicer, to a colonial home setup, to preserved military uniforms.

Soon, that history will be expanded to a church across the street.

In 2018, the project to preserve the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and turn it into the Bethel Black History Museum went into full gear.

Pam Clingerman has been the curator of the Grand River Historical Society for 10 years. The project to preserve the Bethel AME Church came as a way for Clingerman and the museum board to save it from demolition.

“The original premise was that it was going to be demolished to make way for a parking lot,” Clingerman says. “The board decided that although it wasn’t part of our regular course of events that we would rescue it if we could.”

And rescue it they did. On September 18, 2018, the church was moved two and a half miles across town from its original spot on Henry Street to its new home across from the museum on McNally Street.

“When you have a building that has 150 years of history, you don’t bulldoze it down,” Clingerman says. ”The whole idea was to save it and save as much as its history as we could. That’s really important. We need to save history.”

The African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in the United States in 1787.  Prior to the Civil War, the AME was largely limited to free states in the Northeast and Midwest, especially in larger cities. In 2018, the church claimed more that 2.5 million members and 7,000 congregations across North America, the Caribbean, and sub-Saharan Africa and Guyana in South America. Its headquarters is located in Tennessee.

The Bethel AME Church was built in 1868, meaning it was the first of its kind north of the Missouri River to be built post-Civil War and the last to close, having done so 2010. The church was part of a circuit charge with Utica, Trenton, Brookfield, Cameron and Plattsburg.

“My thought is with something that historical, you have to preserve it and you’ve got to preserve the history,” Clingerman says. “Because if it’s gone, who’s going to remember? Who’s going to know or care?”

Currently, Clingerman is still working on restoration efforts. Since 2018, that process has included building a new roof, plastering the walls and renovating the basement to include ADA compliant bathrooms, a small kitchen and gathering area and classrooms where classes will be taught on the traditional arts, such as weaving, spinning and embroidery.

“We have a wonderful fine arts center in town in the Cultural Corner,” Clingerman says, “They’re teaching the fine arts – painting, sketching that kind of thing. We’re just going one step further to go with the traditional arts.”

The restoration project has cost $219,000, with most of that money coming from grants and donations.

“Most everything has been done with grants and with private donations from the community because we believe this is a community project,” Clingerman says.

The projected opening of the museum is late September – just in time to host an Underground Railroad exhibit for Underground Railroad Month. The museum will feature black history from not just Chillicothe, but all of northwestern Missouri. Past its first opening, Clingerman says she and the board already have ideas for where to take the museum in the future.

“We’re hoping to have one traveling exhibit a year,” Clingerman says. “I’d love to have a quilt exhibit. I’d love to have one on the Blue Book, which talks about how African Americans got around in cities and everywhere. So these are two of the things.”

As the project continues, Clingerman would like the community to know that she is still outsourcing for more information given that not much history is known about the Bethel AME Church itself.

“We don’t have a whole lot of history,” Clingerman says. “So if anybody’s listening that has especially pictures of the church, how it was used that would be great. We would love to hear from people.”