In 2000, the Historical Commission of Texas designated White Rock Chapel in Addison, Texas a historic site and worthy of a Texas State Historical Marker.
Following their emancipation, formerly enslaved men and women founded White Rock Chapel along White Rock Creek. In 1884, the White Rock Chapel C.M.E. Church purchased an acre on the banks of the creek and built their first church. They worshipped there for thirty-four years. In 1918, after enduring years of devastating flash floods, the church moved to higher ground to the same property it owns today. The white landowner who donated this higher ground to the church often worshipped with the African American congregation over many years.
Unfortunately, many more years of struggle within the small congregation followed. Eventually, this one-acre property entered receivership in 2017. In August 2018, however, White Rock Chapel purchased the property. It is White Rock Chapel’s mission to not only preserve the property as a vital historic site, but to continue and improve it as a functional place of worship. Sadly, not everyone shares that vision and some neighbors in this wealthy and predominantly white suburban community oppose the presence of White Rock Chapel.
After years of enduring natural disasters that destroyed the first church building and a fire (believed to be arson) in 1960 that destroyed the second church building, the Chapel met with a new obstacle to their existence: bureaucracy.
Because the Chapel began in 1884 and built at its current site in 1918—decades before the City was even incorporated—it was never zoned for its longstanding religious use. The City zoned the Chapel as a “Planned Development District” and “grandfathered” it to function as a church up until the time White Rock Chapel purchased it in August 2018. In the fall of 2021, the City suddenly required White Rock Chapel to obtain zoning permits before it could re-open its doors as a church.
Unfortunately, a fierce and organized neighborhood resistance developed against the Chapel by early 2023. Still, the Chapel remained committed to being a good neighbor, repeatedly meeting with the local neighbors for months, and making numerous concessions to appease their concerns. Nonetheless, after every concession by the Chapel, the local community demanded more. Ultimately, the neighbors forced a vote by the city council on the Chapel’s requested permits. Despite garnering support from 5 of 7 the City’s councilmembers, the council denied Chapel’s request based on a requirement that the Chapel obtain a super-majority because of the neighbors’ fierce opposition.
In September 2023, First Liberty Institute and the law firm McDermott Will & Emery LLP sent a demand letter to the City Council of Addison urging officials to approve of a permit that would allow White Rock Chapel to continue its religious mission.
“It’s a shame that some residents in the neighborhood are opposing the church’s right to exist and aim to banish this historic landmark that symbolizes the freedoms granted to all Americans,” said Ryan Gardner, Counsel for First Liberty Institute. “The city should ignore the heckling of a handful of neighbors and allow this small, African American church to exemplify the core values of unity, diversity, religious freedom that strengthen all communities.”
For Immediate Release: 9.13.23
Contact: John Manning, email@example.com
Historic Addison African American Church Founded by Freed Slaves Blocked by City Council Zoning Decision
Neighbor complaints about church founded by freed slaves more than 150 years ago stall approval for zoning permits.
Addison, TX—First Liberty Institute and the law firm McDermott Will & Emery LLP
submitted a demand letter today to the City Council of Addison urging officials to approve a zoning application for White Rock Chapel, a historic church founded by freed slaves. The chapel was designated a historic site by the Texas Historical Commission in 2000.
You can read the letter here.
“It’s a shame that some residents in the neighborhood are opposing the church’s right to exist and aim to banish this historic landmark that symbolizes the freedoms granted to all Americans,” said Ryan Gardner, Counsel for First Liberty Institute. “The city should ignore the heckling of a handful of neighbors and allow this small, African American church to exemplify the core values of unity, diversity, and religious freedom that strengthen all communities.”
White Rock Chapel – founded by predominantly formerly enslaved men and women – purchased land and built the very first church out of rough-hewn logs near White Rock Creek following emancipation. In 1918, after enduring years of devastating flash floods, the congregation moved to higher ground at the current location. In August 2018, the current owners of White Rock Chapel purchased the property and brought it out of receivership. By doing so, they saved this historic church from demolition and preserved its rich history and legacy. They then sought building permits to restore the property. The city council denied the permits even after they were advanced by the city’s planning and zoning commission.
Today’s letter states, “The City’s denial deprives a historic church—founded almost 150 years ago by formerly enslaved men and women—of its right to religious exercise. More specifically, the City prevents the church from making essential improvements so that it can continue to exist as a place of worship. A small but influential group of opponents have fought—thus far successfully—to stop the church from doing so. But the law is clear. Opposition by a few, no matter how hostile or influential they are, cannot override the church’s right of religious exercise.”
About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.
To arrange an interview, contact John Manning at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 972-941-4453.