The old First Baptist Church on MLK Drive. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
City building code enforcers have not — at least for now — decided to remove one of the last remaining visible signs that San Marcos was once home to a large African-American community.
City officials may yet demolish the 112-year-old, three-story Baptist church on MLK Drive if the building’s owners do not within 30 days initiate repairs to the city’s satisfaction. Since at least May 2009, the city has contended the building is unsafe and in need of repairs or demolition.
City staff met with representatives of the building’s owner — First Baptist Church NBC — at a hearing on Aug. 30 to discuss the fate of the Old First Baptist Church. According to some area residents and Texas State faculty, the church was once “the heart and soul” of the Dunbar neighborhood. Elvin Holt, Chair of the Dora Lee Brady Community Center board of directors, said his organization has existed for about 10 years to preserve and restore the Old First Baptist Church.
“For now the building is safe,” Holt said. “We’re told that the city’s goal was not to demolish the building, but to apparently get the committee, the board, to come together with the city to see what kinds of activities we can engage in to preserve the building. So the way I read it, it’s that the city was trying the motivate the board, it seems, not knowing that we were already self-motivated.”
Amy Kirwin and Ollie Giles, the two San Marcos Council of Neighborhood Association (CONA) Dunbar Neighborhood representatives, waited in a municipal courtroom with other interested parties while members of the First Baptist Church NBC met with city staff in a private conference room. Giles spoke fondly of the Old First Baptist Church, where she recalled acting as the bride in a Tom Thumb wedding when she was five or six years old.
Holt, a professor of English at Texas State, said the Old First Baptist Church used to be the focal point of the once-predominantly African-American Dunbar neighborhood. Holt and Giles said students from the old African-American public school used the Old First Baptist Church for graduation ceremonies.
The old African American school once operated at the current site of the Dunbar Center property. Holt said theatrical performances and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) meetings were held at the Old First Baptist Church.
Decades ago, African-Americans comprised about 40-50 percent of the San Marcos population, said Holt and Gachot. According to the federal government’s 2006-2008 American Community Survey (ACS), 5.2 percent of San Marcos residents are African-American.
“The African-American presence in this neighborhood is being slowly erased,” Holt said. “And I don’t think it’s intentional, because there’s a lot of construction going on. And those people who have lived here know that property that was originally owned by blacks have passed into other hands, and so new people who come into town don’t know that black folk ever lived there. On the (MLK Drive/Guadalupe Street) corner up there, where the (CenturyLink) phone company is, was what was called ‘the Beat’ many years ago. It was a Black business center where they had barbershops, grocery store, ice cream parlor — just a little mall was up there. But now if you go by there and you see the telephone company, you have no clue that black folk owned that corner where (CenturyLink) is. And so we don’t want this corner to become another casualty of history. We want people to know that this building was erected by black folk who were earning less than 50 cents an hour, in 1908. But this was a tremendously impressive building for those black folk to put up. And so, this building is just crucial to the (Dunbar) Historic District, and we want it to be preserved.”
In a recent letter addressed to the First Baptist Church NBC, City of San Marcos Chief Building Official David McMillan stated that major repairs to the Old First Baptist Church had not been initiated, though the city sent the group “notices to comply” in May 2009 and April 2010.
“I have structures all over San Marcos that I’m working on under the unsafe housing program,” said McMillan. “I’ve done inspections throughout the whole city, and anything we find that’s unsafe has gone into this list. I’ve set up a little program where I’m working them all off my list.”
McMillan and City of San Marcos Fire Marshal Ken Bell said the city is treating the First Baptist Church NBC like any other owner of a building out of compliance with the law. McMillan said last week’s court hearing was not precipitated by plans the city might have for the immediate area of the Old First Baptist Church.
“We have 127 buildings in the City of San Marcos inventory that need to be evaluated for unsafe conditions and potential preservation or demolition,” Bell said. “That’s what we do. It’s just part of the process.”
Holt said those who care most about the Old First Baptist Church have not forgotten about it, despite appearances to the contrary.
“Today, we were called to give some account of the apparent lack of activity,” Holt said Friday. “I say ‘apparent’ because it seems to those on the outside that we are not doing anything. They drive by one day and they see the building, and they come by six months later and it looks the same. And so they’re saying, ‘Well, they’re not doing anything.’ And so, what we had to do this morning was let the city know that even though there is no construction work going on here, that our committee is still very active, we’re still meeting, we are pursuing grants. We’ve sent out 16 letters to grant foundations. So we’re not just sitting around doing nothing.”
Just east of the old church on the same block is the Cephas House, named after the prominent African-American blacksmith Ulyssis Cephas, who sometimes served as an intermediary between the segregated white and black populations. Across the street from the Cephas House and one block east is the Calaboose African American History Museum, once a county jail that was converted into a U.S. Officer’s (USO) club for African-Americans in the 1940s.
“About eight years ago we established the Dunbar Historic District,” said Richard Gachot, former president of the Hays County Historical Commission. “It was pretty radical because it was the (city’s) first African-American historic district. And people didn’t quite understand why you would do that because they didn’t think that the architecture was significant. But we did that because history is made up of not just the large homes on Belvin Street, but also everything. So, if we demolish that part of history — particularly in the South — then we lose an essential part of our history and the history books can be rewritten. For example, we’re crossing the San Marcos River here. Supposedly, there used to be tons of cabins here with Hispanics and African-Americans living along here, and it’s all been cleaned up here. Supposedly, there was an African-American family in this house right here on the corner, which is one of the oldest houses … the Cock House. So, everything’s been kind of been cleaned up and somewhat Disney-fied.”
In addition to the vicissitudes of time, the massive Ku Klux Klan (KKK) rally in San Marcos on July 25, 1924, may have contributed to the decline in the city’s African-American population, Holt said. Gachot said the KKK rally attracted 35,000 people to San Marcos, double the town’s population.
“Eddie Durham was getting going, and I don’t think he was going to play music for the Klan rally, so I think he did pretty well to move,” Gachot said.
Eddie Durham (1906-1987), famed and prolific composer, arranger, and player of jazz music, was born in San Marcos and, according to the Texas Historical Commission, developed the first amplified guitar.
About eight years ago, when Gachot taught architecture and drafting at Texas State, he and a student, in collaboration with Holt, created designs for the Old First Baptist Church that call for converting the building to a community center. According to the plans, the first floor of the building would accommodate dining, dancing, art classrooms, a kitchen, an office, and a day care facility. The second floor would include an entry porch, art gallery, and theater. The building’s third floor would include computer labs and classrooms for youth mentoring.
“A lot of kids are lost, they need guidance, and that was the purpose of that, and I think Elvin had a brilliant idea there,” Gachot said.
Gachot said renovating the old church will require a lot of money, and he said Hays County, the city, and caretakers of the Calaboose Museum and the Old First Baptist Church should work together to leverage funds for the effort.
“We would like — as Richard has indicated — we would like for this to be a unified historic district that includes the old church, the Cephas House next door, the Calaboose across the street, and Dunbar Center down the street, the African-American Methodist Episcopal Church — all of those sites are part of the historic district,” Holt said.
The Dora Lee Brady Community Center is currently based out of the First Baptist Church on Mitchell Street, which replaced the Old First Baptist Church as the congregation’s worship place. Dora Lee Brady, who lived to be nearly 100, was a woman of means who resided just up the street from the Old First Baptist Church, where she attended worship services and gave generously, Holt said.
“We’re just asking for time to develop this into the vision that Dr. Holt has,” Gachot said. “And there’ll be moments when things accelerate and moments when they slow down, but we’ve been going steady, at least since I’ve been here, since 2000. So I think we just need to be patient and we’ll get there.”