Salvation for one of Waco's African American Landmarks
Ogee is writing a National Register of Historic Places nomination and consulting on the historic tax credit rehabilitation of the historic St. James United Methodist Church in Waco. In honor of Black History Month, we're sharing the inspiring story of this congregation.
Father Anderson Brack, a former slave, founded St. James M.E. Church in 1874 in Waco. The Church was Waco's second African American Methodist Church, and the first congregation consisted of roughly 60 black Wacoans. The small frame structure on the banks of the Brazos also housed a school for African American children. Several years later, the congregation moved to a small tabernacle at 2nd and Ross streets before erecting a brick church in 1889. This 1889 building was the first brick church for Waco African Americans. In 1909, the City of Waco condemned the building, which was therefore replaced with a larger brick tabernacle at the same site.
The San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad Company purchased the property in 1922 and the congregation worshipped in a small frame building erected on the site of the current building. Construction began on the current church in 1924 using bricks from the old tabernacle on the interior. Designed by prominent Texas architect Carleton Adams, the new church cost $85,000, putting the congregation in debt. In spite of this, the congregation was "delighted with its accomplishment, and the people so generally appreciative of this civic achievement for their city that a generous public will take care of this relatively small amount."
The debts were finally cleared in 1956 as memorialized in a booklet in the St. James Archive entitled The Final Victory: A Book of Everlasting Remembrance of the Triumph of St. James Methodist Church Over Embarrassing Church Debts.
In addition to housing worship services throughout its ninety-four years of operation, St. James was an important gathering place for the surrounding African American community and Waco as a whole. During the Great Depression, the church held a daily soup kitchen, providing food for the needy, be they black or white, Christian or other. Several area schools used the St. James sanctuary as an auditorium for musical performances. A.J. Moore, Waco’s African American High School, held several commencement ceremonies at St. James (the former church building provided classroom space when the high school burned in 1921). The church also housed meetings during the 1920s, when the city of Waco launched the “Waco Forward” movement, a widely marketed civic improvement campaign to “lift Waco from its stagnation and introduce an era of good feeling and progress.” St. James opened its doors to African Americans interested in joining forces with the white citizens of Waco to advance the Waco Forward campaign.
Members of St. James included prominent figures in the African American community in Waco. The earliest influential member was Robert L. Smith, one of the first African Americans elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1894. Smith was a longtime member of the congregation and served as a Steward and Legal Adviser for the church. He also played a leading role in the creation of the Farmers Improvement Society, an early activist effort in Waco that worked to help farmers escape the cycle of debt caused by sharecropping and tenant farming-- a position in which many slaves found themselves after emancipation in Waco. Other notable members included J.J. Flewellen, Principal of Carver High School (Waco’s second African American high school) and Professor J.S. Henry, principal of Kirk-Wilson Elementary School. Pictured: Mrs. Mahala Abernathy Moore, one of the original congregants from the Church's 1874 founding.
St. James played a vital role in the advancement of African Americans in Waco from its founding through the twentieth century. In 1928, the St. James Brotherhood, a men’s group in the congregation, issued a bulletin available to the public covering various concerns of the African American population in Waco. Articles included: “Some Vital Health Problems confronting Waco Colored Population” by Dr. Thomas A. Webster; “Negro Schools and Waco’s Progress,” by Professor B.T. Wilson, principal of Moore High School; “The Political Significance of the Terrell Election Law,” by L.M. Sublett; and “Finding a Common Interest for Waco Businessmen and the General Public,” by V.L.S. Booker, manager of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. In 1932, the church hosted speaker C.W. Rice, Houston-based president-manager of the Texas Negro Business and Laboring Men’s association. St. James also held regular meetings known as “The Forum” to discuss the well-being of African American school children in Waco, as well as advocating for the betterment of the lives of African American women in Waco.
St. James also held several interracial events at the church, such as concerts and Ladies’ auxiliary groups. In February of 1945, St. James held an interracial service on Race Relations Sunday. The program read:
With unity in our nation so essential for the struggle for freedom and for a just and durable peace, the church as probably never before in their history, must now stress Brotherhood among racial and cultural groups throughout the land. [...] It is the eleventh hour! Racial issues are tense [...] Brotherhood Month calls upon the Church to furnish those ‘honest and friendly workmen’ who will build a nation and a world where there shall be no discrimination on the basis of color, creed, or national origin.
Of substantial importance was St. James’ affiliation with the McLennan County chapter of the NAACP, founded in 1936 in Waco. The Waco chapter met at St. James on several occasions through the mid-twentieth century, including a meeting to celebrate “NAACP Sunday” in 1951. The meeting, which occurred in the height of the Civil Rights movement, resulted in an action plan for the McLennan County chapter for the year to address local and national needs. Several members of the congregation were also NAACP officers over the years and the St. James choir often sang at NAACP meetings at other churches in Waco.
The congregation of St. James, unable to maintain the building, sold the church to the current owners in 2016. The new owners of the church plan a sensitive rehabilitation of the building to include a new restaurant in the basement fellowship hall and a community event space in the sanctuary. Ogee is honored to be a part of the preservation of this significant African American landmark in Waco.