Topic: Historic St. James AME
Historic St. James AME Church Rebuilds by Serving Others
A landmark institution bounces back
By J.B. Borders
Three feet of standing water, a busted roof, mold-ravaged walls, a congregation that shrank from 400 people to 14.
That’s enough damage to shut down most churches for a long, long time. Most churches are not Historic St. James African Methodist Episcopal, however.
Since being devastated by the flood of 2005, the church has clawed its way back to viability, thanks in large measure to the generosity of volunteers, philanthropies, and the grit of its congregation.
According to Rev. Otto Duncan Jr., 69, who grew up in Historic St. James and had the good fortune to be appointed its pastor three months after the storm, church membership now stands at 233. That’s slightly more than half its pre-Katrina level, he explains, but the pace of growth has accelerated in the past year.
Nevertheless, Duncan thinks it will be another two years before the church is completely restored and repopulated. A new roof has been put on the building, water-logged carpeting has been ripped out, church pews have been stripped and rebuilt, the plumbing and electrical systems are back in operation.
Though there is still a great deal more work to be done and no clear way to pay for all of it, somehow Historic St. James seems to get the help it needs when it needs it.
In May of this year, for instance, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express, through a joint initiative it dubs Partners in Preservation, awarded the church a $100,000 grant to repair its pressed tin ceiling.
In spring 2006, Sabre/BioOne, a partnership between Albany, NY-based Sabre Technical Services and former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, donated $350,000 of fumigation services to remove mold from the church and its parsonage.
Other rebuilding funding has been provided by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (which had 49 of its churches in the Gulf Coast region damaged by the storms of 2005), the Bush-Clinton Fund and donors in Boca Raton, Florida and other communities.
In addition, volunteer groups from churches and universities in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, New York and Tennessee have spent thousands of hours at Historic St. James and its Mid-City neighborhood cleaning up trash and debris, cooking meals, and making repairs.
Volunteers, church members and professional contractors also have worked with the church to repair half of Historic St. James’ 39 affordable housing units. Located in the vicinity of the church, Duncan says 13 of the homes and apartments are occupied once again.
It is fitting that so many people are now contributing to the rehabilitation of Historic St. James. Over the past 164 years, the church has been involved in every major initiative for social justice in New Orleans. It is probably the single most important landmark of the freedom struggle in New Orleans. To have lost it, would have been a crushing blow.
Founded in 1844 by free people of color, St. James is the oldest AME congregation in the Deep South. The church building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its distinctive Victorian Gothic Revival architecture, was constructed between 1848 and 1851 at 222 North Roman Street.
The AME Church was a pioneer in what today is called liberation theology. An outgrowth of Philadelphia’s Free African Society, which was founded in 1787 as a mutual aid and abolitionist organization, the AME Church set up shop in New Orleans at a time when the city had become a booming river port and a major slave market. Worse, between 1830 and 1850, the white population in New Orleans had more than quadrupled – from 20,047 to 89,452 – and whites had gone from being a minority of the city’s populace, 43.5 percent, to an overwhelming majority, 76.9 percent.
The huge increase in white population was also accompanied by continuous efforts to curtail the economic and political influence of the city’s free people of color, who numbered 11,562 in the 1830 census, grew to 15,072 by 1840 but then shrank to 9,905 by 1850.
It was in this environment that Historic St. James was forged. In the 1850s, the church’s pastor, John Mifflin Brown, was jailed five times “for not excluding slaves from the services of the church,” according to historians Caryn Cossé Bell and the late Joseph Logsdon in an essay entitled “The Americanization of Black New Orleans 1850-1900.” In 1858, Bell and Logsdon report, the city closed St. James AME for what it hoped would be eternity by passing “an ordinance that banned any black organization or church not under the control of whites.”
Three years later, however, the Civil War broke out and New Orleans was seized and occupied by the Union Army. Appropriately enough, St. James AME was where the first regiment of African American soldiers for the Union Army in Louisiana was organized.
In the decades that followed, Historic St. James was involved in fight for equal rights during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. The church was instrumental in the establishment of the Bienville School for Black Children in 1903 (now known as the Albert Wicker Elementary School) and the initial organization of the Black YMCA in 1905. It also served as the headquarters for the Canal Street desegregation campaigns of the 1960s.
And despite its own hardships in post-Katrina New Orleans, Historic St. James helped ease the suffering of those in the homeless encampment at the intersection of Claiborne Avenue and Canal Street.
“We fed people,” Rev. Duncan says, “and gave them sleeping bags, clothing, personal care products and, of course, Bibles.”
The church also maintains its relationship with Wicker Elementary, providing uniforms and school supplies to students and gift cards and other rewards to teachers.
A retired mental health professional, Duncan says continuing the church’s outreach and service activities are more important than merely restoring its buildings.
“I don’t think our members would be happy if we got our building fixed but couldn’t continue to help the needy in our community,” he explains. “That’s the real work of the church—tending to the needs of people. That’s how we will restore the church as an institution in the community.”
If the past is any predictor, continuing to be a relevant institution will not be a problem for Historic St. James AME Church. It can’t possibly know any other way to function and operate.
Thank God for that.