San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

August 3rd, 2010
Old First Baptist Church supporters hope for community center


The old First Baptist Church on MLK Drive. Photo by Sean Batura.

News Reporter

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.”

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9 thoughts on “Old First Baptist Church supporters hope for community center

  1. So, there’s a “list.” And the building official is “treating this building like any other.” Something is really wrong here. Maybe some sensitivity training and education about the importance of San Marcos history – all aspects of it – are in order here.

    Is the San Marcos City Council really going to sit back and let the destruction of their city’s African-American heritage take place under their very noses?

  2. I believe they had funds at one point to stabilize & secure the structure, but it was not enough because of some asbestos/lead abatement that had to be done was far more expensive than anticipated. In fact, I believe the funds used for that came from the city’s CDBG fund. I hope Bell is giving them a list of the minimum work he expects to see, because a complete renovation in the short-term is not realistic. The structure needs to be stabilized, but decision-makers need to consider the historic and cultural importance in their approach to remedying the situation. At least be pro-active and offer solutions & consultatation.

    Dunbar is routinely held out by the Texas Historical Commission as an example of designating a local historic district not because it has quaint gingerbread architecture, but because of its role in the history of a community and need to maintain a disappearing part of the San Marcos culture. You better believe San Marcos will be hearing from them on this one, as moves like this place the city at risk of losing its Preserve America and Certified Local Government status.

  3. This is a beautiful building that has always had an impact on me in regards to what I identify as San Marcos. I really hope it remains and that we can place some investment in its continued presence as a unique relic of our town.

  4. I am eternally thankful we have people like Lila and Dr. Holt, to name only two, who are willing to put their bodies where their mouths are, and keep them there until justice is served and our best instincts as a community are honored.

    As a little assist to these servants of the people, I took the liberty of sending this NS/SMLN thread to a few “higher elected officials” and other community leaders, to see if we can maybe get a bit more help this time round. I just hope somebody has talked to Rodney van Oudekerke and some other upcoming candidates for local office.

    This is a heck of a fine community to be a part of.

  5. Thank you Billy Moore. We need all the help we can get at this point…I know Rodney. He was chair of the Historic Preservation Commission for many years. I believe we can count on him. He won’t let the community down on this one.

    If we work together, we can make this happen for the Dunbar Community.

    Going to bed – and looking forward to reading more from you with my coffee tomorrow…it’s become a habit for me that just goes right along with the caffeine.

  6. Thank you back, Ms. Lila. But there is evidence you are a seriously deranged woman, if your day starts with a dose of me. I can get witnesses. Would anybody ever believe, after all these years plowing in the vineyard together, that as far as I can recall, we’ve never shaken hands? Not necessary, as our hearts seem to be good neighbors, and we are both the kinds of folks who just can’t shut the hell up, when something is being erased or left behind, or when somebody hides his/her real motives in simply killing something that belongs to the community. Enjoy your coffee. I’ve had a very tiring and perilous couple of days, and I am old. Think I too will go and rest. Thanks again for being who you apparently were forced to be from birth. Looks as if the OFBC issue may fnally get a real airing out, after all.

    I hope people take up the popular “historic tourism” cry, and relate the building to our other pregnant issue, education. (OMG, as the IT geek generation says, “I’m starting to sound like Olliie Giles, Lorraine Burleson, Rose Brooks and their ‘posse.’ Danger lies there.!”)

  7. Time is short right now.
    I want to see movement, involvement, and action from the community, not just blaming the city for “insensitivity” and looking to government for the solution here, Lila.
    The building in it’s current condition is a potential danger to the neighborhood, and I can see a situation much like the one with the razing by fire of the old hospital on Belvin street happening with this beautiful building as well. The Marshall’s office really wants to see the building developed, but is also doing the job that we have tasked them with, looking out for the safety of the neighborhood and local business’s.
    I would really like to see some concrete figures. How much will it cost for stabilization, and for full restoration? How long will it take? How can we get together to work with the owners to come up with a plan agreeable to the city? Is this on the city’s CIP plan? Do we need to get them in touch with engineer’s and specialists to come up with the plans?
    Once we get that, we can start working on Lila, and others, to get the candidates they fund to pull some money out of their war chests and give back to this community out of their pockets, not looking to the government for the help on this. At this point, the owners of the building did not get the grant paperwork filed, so it is up to us, the citizens to show what WE think of our local heritage sites. It’s going to take much more than the “words”. Let’s get Lila some numbers so she can get on the phone to her friends to give us some straight cash to the local San Marcos voters for an important, and time critical, need for the Dunbar neighborhood. In my opinion, that would be a better use of your morning time than going back and forth with Billy, and watching the “destruction of our city” happen right in front of us.
    (Then again, we can always pitch a small nine hole golf course through Durham park and Dunbar, using recycled water, and maybe convert some of th building into high end loft apartments. That usually seems to get quick fast tracking, discussion, and lobbying support around this town. It’s probably covered under the SMART code somewhere…)

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  9. Hang on, Dr. Holt and Miss Ollie. Help is out there, and it will come. O, wait, don’t tell me you’ve heard that one before– thought I was being original, for a change. The problem for the OFBC is, it seems to me, is that there are so many really more important issues–like the aforementioned “Smurf Code” getting done and installed in a hurry, that ones like yours get lost in the clamor, on the one side, and drowned out in hysteria, on the other. Then in the DEAD CENTER (oopsie!), there is that that for years we have been stricken with chronic laryngitis as a community–no radio, no TV, no substantial core of journalists, no adequate forum to sit down and solve the OFBC puzzle with community creativity and all the people’s networking resources. I have, for example, where the support came from for the Hispanic Heritage Center, which just sprang up. THAT seed must have somehow, in the words of “That Fellow Who always Spoke in Red,”‘ fallen upon fertile ground, and sprung forth.” Not that people seem familiar with Him any more–just an example I sometimes use. Great sound bite.

    Speaking of which, has OFBC ever been discussed in the diverse congregations of the Ministerial Alliance, or has that group been asked for at least moral support? Lot of hands and brains out there, with stated goals of “Good Works.” And many of those congregants understand the religious and Church history of SM, and value it–at least over at First Methodist, the oldest and biggest, and perhaps also in the proposed “Smurf Code” target zone. And First Christian, the former owner of the now-Price Senior Center, which does some of the same stuff you say you’d like to do, only not so much for the children and the Historic Neighborhood.

    Lord knows, the SMCofC and the CVB might think of something, since they tout “historic tourism” based in part on stuff like the (J. Armstead) Old Calaboose. Also “music tourism,” which will benefit from the Durham place, likewise right in the very same, very small neighborhood. And the Heritage of the Cephas House and Heritage Historic Site. Ollie, you aren’t surely the oldest nor the only person who ever could relate back to “The Beat,” that you seem to think so big in our history–already seen the rich memory of Bill Haney, printed right here, just above–so important in his youth and his memory and his fond experiences that he actually offered to send a bit of money, when appropriate
    We could do a couple more projects, like the LBJ/King Statue, and they’d lead right off Guadalupe into a little standing walking or driving route into history, just like Belvin and San Antonio Hysterical Districts.

    Dust on a little Fairy Dust, and some magic might come down from “The Hill,” where there are all KINDS of possible centers of interest and maybe resources, e.g. Umoja, Black Student Association, Pan-Hellenic, Diversity Studies Center, Center for the Study of Southwestern Music, Bobcat Build, General Studies and Honors Program–bound to be some scholars, some working hands, some bright ideas, some $$$ resources, some grant access opportunity, etc. Follow me here:

    TXSTATE is a high-perforning SCHOOL (I know because I was over there a LONG time, doing a lot of diverse things–student, athlete, teacher in early UpWard Bound summer school, painter, construction and maintenance worker, paper-pusher, administrator, Planner, and Finally Regional and Economic Development Director). I DO sort of “know the place” from many angles, except down from the top. Schools like that EXIST to do research, to teach (History, Poli Sci, Bidness, Media/Communications, Arts and Design, Advertising and PR, Urban Planning, Sociology, Family and Consumer SPerforming Arts, Construction and Construction Management, Electronic Technology (yes, all of it, from writing code to buildng ‘Applied Systems–well, you get it–a raft of mature and younger minds filled with skills and curiosity, many of them needing related projects as publcations,many required to do Community Service, either as a personal thing or a “group thing” or a degree requirement.If you were better-known or had a solid core group to coordinate efforts, do the Strategy, and development and implement the Goals you’ve got already.
    Now, remember, I’m just a brainstormer (Hide the kids and pets in the Cellar It’s beginning to thunder and!the clouds are turning green!). But if I were Spike Lee (or our own Eugene Lee, the Playwright), I could draft a drama outline or a dramatic sketch that would blow your hat off, what with the Statewide KKK rally on our Square, the Big Bank Robbery, the Farmer’s Cooperative, Smith Gin and Oil Mill, the River, surrounding HISTORIC EVENTS such as the Jim Crow or Reconstruction Or Lyndon’s and Mister Sam Rayburn’s bringing electrric power and running water through the Central Texas Watershed–a second Emancipation. Shoot, even I could do a small bit on studying how to teach here in SMHS and the Dunbar School–1965, and fascinating to watch how we whites had different approaches, philosophies, styles, activities, etc. Different equipment, books, and teaching space., over at the Old Negro Campus of Dunbar. Learned much about teaching from Mr. Powell, who taught science without a lab.

    Yes, the list above should include the noble old Coronal Institute building on Belvin,, the beginning of SM as an “Education City,” later to be the Soldiers and Sailors Hospital. It stood empty after being sold by the recent owner, a TXSTATE fraternity, then was torched by arsonists. So far as I know, blame was never even placed. Who was the owner then, and who has it now, in the process of erecting a VERY impressive structure in its place? Is there even a plaque? Seems as if, not only did the Structure pass, but even curiosity about it. A tutorial example.

    If OFBC is ever to be “fixed” before it is razed, some things must happen, if I may be bold: An education phase must remind the community what it is, and why we might want to keep it. A dialogue must start up and grow, if anybody really is to care–not just a conversation between a few members of an interest group and the Fire Marshal. The dialogue must spread to include as many as possible, just to continue educating citizens about possible value to be not only kept, but gained, based on any future community investment. Until then, the vast majority will have NO clue, as many already don’t; they will see it as an ugly old, weather-beaten building and a possible hazard, best replaced, like Coronal, by a modern investor. The History, along with the structure, ERASED, rather than either being available as a resource. Blunt, and maybe even seeming unkind, but as far as I can see, true.

    If there is any support out there, it CAN grow. Political, social, economic, educational. But the conversation MUST become audible, widespread, and continuous. And it must deal straight up with the argument of naysayers, who say it has value only to a tiny interest group. (Ron and Marie Jager can speak to this, having been through all the hardship of the Price Senior Center/OCC, which has become a shining star and a bustle of activity–and FUNDING.) The “electric newspaper” you are reading is a HUGE vehicle for such important public discussions, and it reaches more each day. Has everyone interested in OFBC been reading along, or letting others know about SMLN? It IS the new “voice in the community,” and can be a powerful and efficient way of bringing opinions and facts to the conversation. (Which, of course, is what I am trying to do right here, right now.)

    I almost (but not quite) shame myself for saying that Local Elected Officials MUST be at the Center of any real discussion–they WILL be a main source of support or non-support. (Incidentally, is FOBC affected by the would-be “Smart Code” zoning that seems just to have been withdrawn from the Hysterical Districts because of public outcry? The recent discussions you all have been in with “the City” rather neatly coincided with those on the massive re-zoning, unless I am mistaken, which happens more than I would like. Maybe a speculator is already out there, ready for a bargain?

    Now is the best time in YEARS, past or future, to get your public education and conversation some attention. For a couple of months, there will be come very sensitive and attentive ears going throughout the commnity, hoping to gain enough trust to be elected to BECOME Local Government. They are competing with each other for the honor and prize of public trust–both some that sit there now and some who are challenging. They need money and votes, badly, to keep from being humiliated at the end.

    They DARE NOT be ignorant of, or on the wrong side of, ANY issue that numbers of people are discussing with interest. They will ALL try to SAY the “right things” and toss out the “right” slogans, mottoes and sound bites. If both the pro- and anti- OFBC folks ask them to speak out, and hold them accountable for their “sound bites” and issues NOT on their manufactured and paid-for campaigns, and thus ignored, they have no place to go but to listen. They cannot run. They cannot hide. On serious issues, any way. They MUST take at least a verbal stand, which CAN be made binding, by serious and committed people. Of course, and I say with due caution and respect, a proper modern “Campaign Advisor” will suggest that OFBC matters “only” to 5% of the people, and so can be made a non-issue. IF that IS the truth, then it may be time to just go home and weep–again–for another bit of the Heritage and culture of our town. But then, perhaps their challengers might see the need to keep bringing up the subject, until Nov. 2, when ALL can develop collective amnesia and go on with their own and their supporters’ agendas.

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