BIRMINGHAM, Ala — A new effort to preserve historic Black churches in the United States has received a $20 million donation that will go to help congregations including one that was slammed during the tornado that killed more than 20 people in Mayfield, Kentucky, last month.
Lilly Endowment Inc., which supports religious, educational and charitable causes, contributed the money to the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund as seed funding for the Preserving Black Churches Project, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which launched the fund.
The announcement about the donation from the Lilly Endowment was timed to coincide with the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday on Monday.
Rather than simply replacing broken windows or straightening rafters, the project will provide assistance with things including asset management and helping historic churches tell their own stories, said Brent Leggs, executive director of the fund.
St. James AME Church, founded in 1868 just three years after the Civil War and crumpled by the Mayfield twister, will receive $100,000 as the first recipient of the project’s special emergency funding, Leggs said.
With its sanctuary virtually destroyed and only 15 or so active members, all of whom are older, St. James AME needs all the help it can get, said the Rev. Ralph Johnson, presiding elder of a church district that includes the congregation. Black churches served a vital role after the war ended and Black people no longer were considered the property of white people.
“Once the slaves were freed one of the things they wanted to start was a church home. They wanted to work out their spiritual salvation and have a place to congregate, and they also were used as schools and other things,” he said.
Black churches have been a key element of the African American community through generations of faith and struggle, and preserving them isn’t just a brick-and-mortar issue but one of civil rights and racial justice, Leggs said in an interview.
“Historically Black churches deserve the same admiration and stewardship as the National Cathedral in Washington or New York’s Trinity Church,” he said. Trinity, where Alexander Hamilton and other historic figures are buried, was near Ground Zero and became a national touchstone after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In all, the project plans to assist more than 50 Black churches nationwide over the next three years, including some that are vacant or set for demolition or are struggling with inadequate funding, aging members and dwindling membership. While active congregations are the main priority, funding can also go to old church buildings that now house projects like community centers or treatment programs, Leggs said.
“It still stewards the legacy of the Black church but for a new purpose,” he said.
The fund previously has assisted congregations including Mother Emmanuel AME Church, where white supremacist killed nine parishioners during a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, and Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, a stalwart of the civil rights movement which was bombed in the 1950s.
The Action Fund, which has raised more than $70 million, has assisted with more than 200 preservation projects nationally. It was started by the National Trust for Historic Preservation after clashes between white supremacists and protesters during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
The fund calls itself the largest-ever attempt to preserve sites linked to African American history.