TEBBETTS, Mo. — A 143-year-old church in Tebbetts suffered smashed windows and other damage following a visit by vandals last weekend.
Two abandoned residences in the area were also vandalized, Callaway County Sheriff Clay Chism said.
Founded by freed Black residents of the area in 1878, Oakley Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church has been disused for decades but remains a monument. Inside the gable-front church on County Road 485 hung photographs and artifacts documenting the church's story and the story of Black people who lived in the area and worshipped at the church.
Damage to the structure was first reported to authorities Saturday morning and is believed to have occurred last Friday night, Chism said. He said there's no record of previous vandalism at the church.
"Significant vandalism occurred, as demonstrated by general ransacking with subsequent damage to exterior doors, windows, and the interior structure itself," he wrote in a Thursday email.
The building's windows are smashed and its front door damaged. Inside, anything that could be toppled or thrown was: pews, a pulpit, old silk flowers. Scorch-marks on the floor suggest an attempt to light a fire. A small dining hall on the same property was even more extensively damaged, with holes knocked into its interior walls.
The CCSO criminal investigations supervisor has been assigned to the case, and the investigation is active. As of Thursday, no arrests had been made in connection with the case.
"There is no direct evidence at this time to substantiate a hate-based crime occurred," Chism added. "As with any investigation, all possibilities will be explored. There were two abandoned residences vandalized in the same area; thus, it appears the church itself was not the sole target."
If any such evidence arises, the case will be reported to the FBI, Chism said.
Oakley is the second historically Black church in Callaway County to be vandalized in the last few months. In late November, the Holts Summit community was shocked by the destruction at Mount Vernon Missionary Baptist Church — authorities found shattered windows, smashed-through walls, tipped over pews and furniture, scorch marks and bullet holes.
The church property houses two buildings — an old church built in 1896 and a newer one built in the early 2000s. Both suffered damage, though the old building was hit more severely. Four Jefferson City and Holts Summit teens ages 14-16 were later arrested for the vandalism.
Chism said there's no evidence linking the two incidents, though "all possibilities are being explored."
Tips may be provided anonymously by contacting CrimeStoppers at callawaysheriff.org/crime-stoppers or by calling 573-592-2474. Any tips directly leading to the arrest of those responsible will be rewarded, according to the CCSO.
Crystal Hanks shared a photo of the vandalism to the Facebook group "You Know You're From Tebbetts, Mo. When" on Sunday. Reached by phone Thursday, she said she and her husband, Bill Hanks, live "right around the corner" from the building.
"My husband noticed the vandalism Saturday morning on his way to work, but it was still dark out and he thought the A/C unit was just out of the window," Hanks said. "When we went into town Sunday, we were able to get pictures of it, and we saw all the windows were completely busted out of it."
She added the church was already in rough shape following years of little maintenance.
"It really needs repaired — groups used to come out every summer to tour the church," Hanks said.
On Thursday, several locals, led by George Hord, gathered at the church to board up its broken windows. Community members have already rescued the artifacts from the church's walls.
"Let me get hold of the person who did it," Hord said. "It's just so disgusting."
Hord grew up in Tebbetts and can remember the church's more-vibrant days, when Sunday lunches served outside between two cedar trees would draw an endless stream of locals. These days, he keeps an eye on the church and helps maintain the property.
"It's going to take a lot to restore it, a lot of volunteers," Hord said, surveying the damage.
Hord said a third area church — the long-disused, tumble-down Barkersville Christian Church on Missouri 94 near Tebbetts — was also vandalized in the last year. Vandals spray-painted "derogatory statements" on its walls, he said. That building has since been demolished.
Hord said plans are developing to restore the church and perhaps even move it to a location closer to town. Watch the Fulton Sun for updates on those plans and opportunities to help.
Anyone wishing to volunteer may contact Hord at 972-533-8902.
The first of several African Methodist Episcopal churches established in the county after the end of slavery, Oakley was also the last active A.M.E. church in the county. A.M.E. is a predominately African American denomination founded by free Black Christians in response to discrimination within white denominations.
In 1830, 24 percent of the people in Callaway County were enslaved. The number and percentage of enslaved people in the area continued to grow, reaching a peak of 28.4 percent of the population in 1850.
After the Civil War, many freed slaves left the county, and the Black population dropped to 18 percent of the county's residents. Those that stayed put down roots.
In 1877, Caleb Bush, Harrison Farmer and Solomon Tarlton purchased an acre of land to set aside for the construction of a church — all three bore the surnames of Callaway County enslavers.
William L. Kidwell, a white landowner who had possessed 12 people by the time he was 25, sold the land to the men for a token $1.
Oakley's first pastor was Ben McCollough. The church became the center of the rural Black community, bringing together even those who were not members for revivals and suppers, providing an outlet for entertainment, news, education and fellowship.
Several families living on "the ridge" west of the church and in "the hollow" north and east of the building, as well as others from across Cote Sans Dessein and neighboring townships attended the church.
Despite a decline in the African American population in rural Callaway County, Oakley Chapel thrived in the 1950s and 1960s under the leadership of the Rev. Marjorie L. Casson.
Hord said the last official church service at Oakley occurred in the 1980s, though occasional functions were held there until the early 2000s.
The church appears on the National Register of Historic Places. According to the registration form, the property is owned by the A.M.E. Church, Missouri Conference, St. Louis-Columbia district.
Black History Month begins Monday.