A Charleston church whose history includes the first black Boy Scout troop, the beginnings of the historic Mattie V. Lee home and relocating during urban renewal will celebrate an anniversary this week.
St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church will mark its 125th anniversary this weekend.
“My church was a trailblazer in the black community here in Charleston,” Trustee Sharon Banks said.
The church, one of two in Charleston that are part of the first independent Protestant denomination to be founded by black people, was organized in 1892 in the basement of the old courthouse.
Its first building was at 155 Court St. in Charleston. It was located in what would become the super block of land bordered by Lee, Court, Quarrier and Clendenin streets downtown, where the Charleston Town Center mall would be built in the 1980s.
The church moved to the corner of Second Street and Fitzgerald on Charleston’s West Side after the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority paid $117,500 for the property in 1972. The church remains there today.
Banks, a Nashville, Tennessee, native, has attended church since 1990, when she moved to West Virginia. Though she wasn’t around Charleston to witness her church’s relocation, she remembers how urban renewal affected surrounding communities in Nashville.
“Fortunately, where I lived, my family lived directly behind the campus of Tennessee State University and wasn’t disturbed ... but the lower part of north Nashville was interrupted by the interstate, Interstate 40,” Banks said.
Banks said the Second Street neighborhood where St. Paul is now was the home of many West Virginia State College professors, black public school teachers, attorneys, and other “movers and shakers” of the black community in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
Over the years, the neighborhood has changed, though.
“If you go there now, it’s dying because drugs and all have taken over the West Side,” she said. “It’s just all negative now. It used to be proud, used to be full of pride.”
Charleston’s first black Boy Scout troop was organized by a former pastor of the church, the Rev. Francis Herman Gow, according to a written history of the church. In 1915, Gow also helped organize the Mattie V. Lee Home, which provided housing for black women who came to Charleston seeking employment. The home was named after the state’s first black female doctor, who was the wife of St. Paul member, W. L. Lee. Today, it’s home to a Prestera Center drug treatment facility.
For the past 20 years, the church has served a weekly dinner, free for anyone who wants to come. Banks said people in the community know the church for its dinner because the church has good cooks.
“They appreciate how nice we are,” Banks said. “We never judge. We never judge the people that walk through the door.”
Church pastor the Rev. John Sylvia said he hopes his church continues to be a beacon and source of healing and spiritual guidance in the community and a voice for justice.
Banks and Sylvia said the congregation is still blazing trails through its involvement with the Charleston Black Ministerial Association. The Rev. Roberta Smith, an associate pastor at St. Paul, became the organization’s first female president in 2012. Smith had a role in helping create RESET, which was established after the police shooting of Michael Brown, a young black Missouri man, in 2014. The group aims to foster better relations between police, clergy and the community and to prevent unrest in the event of a police shooting.
Banks said she wants the community to continue to develop leadership skills in the children who come to the church for its children’s ministry.
“We want to make sure that the children become solid and productive citizens to instill within them things that are right,” Banks said. “And when things that are wrong, to be able to stand up to those things that are wrong, and that they firmly believe in what they believe.”
That’s a difficult job, Banks said, but the church has many committed adults to help guide the kids, she said.
The church is planning a three-day celebration for its anniversary Friday through Sunday. The celebration will begin with a meet and greet at 6 p.m. Friday, a picnic beginning at noon Saturday and a celebration featuring the church’s former pastor, the Rev. Sandy Drayton, at 3 p.m. Sunday.
For more information, see the church’s website.
Reach Lori Kersey at email@example.com, 304-348-1240 or follow @LoriKerseyWV on Twitter.