On Aug. 1, 1875, a crowd gathered in the afternoon heat outside a stone building in downtown San Antonio, not far from the banks of San Pedro Creek.

They were there to celebrate the expansion of an African Methodist Episcopal church building that for two years had served as a community hub and place of worship. Historians today say the group included San Antonio residents who had been born into slavery but emerged from the Civil War as free people, exercising rights and pursuing dreams that had been denied to Black people since the founding of the United States.

At the juncture of two walls, the congregation placed a cornerstone to commemorate the event. It read: AME CHURCH 1875.

Now, 145 years later, that cornerstone has been unearthed. Construction on the San Pedro Creek project uncovered the foundations of the building that was once the property of St. James AME Church, a congregation that still exists on San Antonio’s West Side.

“I think it’s very instrumental for us to have some kind of identity in San Antonio in terms of our history, especially with St. James’ history and the contributions that they have made along the way,” said the Rev. Al Smith, who has been St. James’ pastor for the past four years.

Since the discovery, archaeologists have been preparing to submit the property for consideration for the National Register of Historic Places. Archaeologists with engineering and consulting firm Raba Kistner are working on a report for federal government review, according to officials with the San Antonio River Authority, which is managing the San Pedro Creek project.

“We did not anticipate finding the actual physical foundation,” said Kerry Averyt, the river authority’s senior engineer. “That’s when the excitement started, especially when they found the cornerstone.”

A link to Reconstruction

The foundation offers a link to a time of seismic shifts in American life. The Civil War had ended slavery, but its aftermath offered no civil rights for the formerly enslaved. That was until 1867, when Congress took over Reconstruction and passed the 14th Amendment, providing citizenship, and the 15th Amendment, which acknowledged Black people’s right to vote.

With greater constitutional rights, Black people climbed the rungs of American society. During Reconstruction, 16 Black people ended up serving in Congress, with hundreds serving in state legislatures and other local offices.

“Imagine being a slave in one year and a couple years later entering the halls of Congress,” said Carey Latimore, associate professor of history at Trinity University, who serves on the San Pedro Creek Citizens Advisory Committee. “That is progress that goes beyond what we can ever think of as fast progress.”

For the congregants of the young St. James AME church, which the San Antonio Daily Express reported numbered around 200 at the time, the 1870s would have been a period of transition and hope.

“They’re coming out of slavery into freedom,” said Latimore, who has studied Black communities during Reconstruction. “They’re defining what that freedom is like.”

This hope is evident in the words the Rev. W.R. Carson, St. James’ pastor, wrote in the Daily Express in 1874.

Described as a statement to “citizens and friends of the … church,” the article listed the money the group had raised to buy the property, a former soap factory: $2,000 for the building, purchased in 1873, along with $1,102 in “incidental expenses, lights, repairing, etc.” It went on to detail salaries, traveling expenses, conference fees, and donations to the poor.

A view of 1870s Alameda Plaza near San Pedro Creek that includes the former St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church building. Credit: Courtesy / TAMU-SA

Another news item in the Express in 1875 previewed the cornerstone-laying ceremony. The church spent $2,300 enlarging the building, it “having become too small for the large and growing membership and congregation.”

“As I leave for the annual [AME] Conference, I feel it is my duty to make the above statement, that the citizens of the city may see that we are a working people, trying to get a place of worship,” Carson wrote in the 1874 article.

But rising in opposition to this kind of growing hopefulness was a wave of violent reaction across the South. The decades after the Civil War saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and similar paramilitary groups, many of them affiliated with the Southern Democratic Party.

In 1873, the same year the St. James congregation purchased their church, white Southerners massacred dozens of Black people in Colfax, Louisiana, in one of the deadliest attacks of the Reconstruction era. Estimates of the number of dead range from 80 to 150.

But in San Antonio, Carson described a different experience.

“I am proud to say that while I have been in this city I have been kindly treated by both white and colored, not as a colored man, but as a gentleman,” wrote Carson, who came to San Antonio in 1872.

Compared to other Southern cities, San Antonio has always had a relatively small Black population, a factor that Latimore said might in part explain why the reaction to Reconstruction may have been less intense here than elsewhere at the time.

“It’s not going to be as egregious as what you find in areas with large African American populations,” Latimore said, adding “I don’t think there’s anywhere that African Americans were outside of all of that stuff.”

What’s next for San Pedro Creek

Like many sites in downtown San Antonio, the church foundation reflects layers of history that developed over time. After the building area was used as a church, it later became an ice factory, then Alamo Brewery, which was eventually purchased by Anheuser-Busch, City Archaeologist Matthew Elverson said.

Other than the National Register application, it’s not yet clear how exactly the former church site will be commemorated in the San Pedro Creek project. Averyt said the original design called for an inlay of the church boundaries in the sidewalk along the creek.

“We don’t have a plan yet,” Averyt said. “The step that we need to do first is determine the eligibility of the structure for the National Register.”

Alameda Plaza
A 2018 rendering of Alameda Plaza is shown for the second phase of the San Pedro Creek project. Credit: Courtesy / SARA

As for the modern St. James, church members are struggling to stay in contact while separated during the coronavirus pandemic, Smith said. Members haven’t gathered in-person in three months, even though they have permission from the State to hold worship services.

Core members have stayed in touch with weekly video chats, and Smith has noticed some traction among Latinos and other racial and ethnic groups.

“The non-African American presence has also been interesting,” Smith said. “With the history, they’re really taken back, and they’re looking for a church that’s involved in social justice.”

The congregation has waned in numbers in recent years, he said, with many of its eldest members dying. However, he’s noticed some of the younger members showing interest in the church’s roots.

“A lot of our older members are really just dying off, so that’s why it’s important to preserve so future generations will know the history,” Smith said.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.