Key Memorial United Methodist Church

A Murfreesboro landmark church and one of its ministers

This building has an important significance to the Murfreesboro community and is located 806 East State Street. This church’s history spans back to the Civil War, and it remains an important place of worship for the local black community here in Murfreesboro. Before the Civil War, both Black and White people worshipped in the same building in Murfreesboro. Throughout the Civil War, Black citizens worshipped in the basement of the Methodist Episcopal Church South location in Murfreesboro and then in the Primitive Baptist Church, which was located at the corner of Church and Lytle Street. After the war, it became important for emancipated black citizens to have their own place of worship, so a plan to erect a building started. There were no ordained ministers in the area who were black who would step up to lead the congregation, so Braxton James, a leader of the church, stepped up and became ordained in Louisville, Kentucky, thus becoming the first minister. Now, the original building of the church was not on E. State Street, it was originally built on the north corner of College and Highland Street. The property was purchased from a white man named A.A. Gee for $700 (around $12,176 in 2021) in 1866. The funds used to purchase the property came from sources such as the Freedman’s Bureau, a monetary relief used for freed men. The process of building the church, however, lasted a long time and the building did not have its first service until 1880.

Hilary W. (December 24th, 1833- July 14th, 1912) a former slave who was born in Gallatin, Tennessee. Hilary W. Key was not only the second minister for the Key United Methodist Church, but an important figure for the Methodist Community in Tennessee and one of the founders of the Central Tennessee College, which operated during 1865-1925 (changed its name to Walden University in 1900). One of the departments of the school became the first black medical school in the South, Meharry Medical College, which still exists today in Nashville. The rest of the university became part of Trevecca Nazarene University. Key is not only memorialized through Key United Methodist here in Murfreesboro, but also in Gallatin, his hometown, with Key-Stewart United Methodist Church and in Hartsville, Tennessee with Key Methodist. As local historian and minister Melvin E. Hughes SR states about Key, “He not only inspired many young people to pursue an education, but he contributed financially to make such opportunities possible.”

During the 20th century, Key United Methodist went through some changes, the biggest one being a fire that destroyed the building on the morning of Sunday, June 8, 1963. Thankfully no service was scheduled for that day due to an out-of-town church conference, but the damage was irreparable. The origin of the fire is unknown, and local newspapers only mention the fire once, the same week when it occurred. There are no records of the investigation of the cause of the fire, so there is no confirmation of the fire being accidental or arson. However, looking at the climate of the South during the 1960s, one may wonder if it was on purpose. Local historian and author Greg Tucker states that “despite the racial tensions of that era in other parts of the South (George Wallace blocking a door at the University of Alabama three days later on June 11 and Medgar Evers’ murder on June 12), the Key fire prompted no such concerns or conflict in Murfreesboro.” Even though the 1963 fire destroyed the building, it was not the first instance of fire for the church, as there is a report of a fire that occurred in the 1940s. Murfreesboro resident Mark Womack remembers a time where he saw smoke coming from the roof of the church parsonage and stated, “I ran across the street, entered the parsonage, and helped move clothing out to the yard away from the flaming house.” The church was rebuilt in 1967 with financial help from a local attorney Whitney Steagall. The new site stands right here at 806 East State Street and has stayed here ever since. While the old structure of the church is gone, the parsonage still stands at 467 East College Street.