JEFFERSON, Texas — Union Baptist Church here has undergone a complete restoration and brings one of the state's most important historic sites as close as possible to its original 1883 condition.
While the church was designated a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark in 2011, it spent decades in a state of increasing disrepair. The multi-year project has been overseen by the Jefferson-based Collins Academy and the Dallas-based Today Foundation. Both organizations were founded by Richard H. Collins.
Collins is a philanthropist and a preservationist who has underwritten multiple education and cultural initiatives across the state of Texas. He has deep family roots in East Texas. The signature element of a Collins project is to maintain authenticity by renovating a structure as historically accurate to its origins as possible.
Collins hosted a private opening celebration for the Union Baptist Church on Saturday.
"We believe our efforts will make Jefferson a leader in historic preservation and community involvement," Collins said.
Bill Mahomes, legal attorney and Reagent at Texas A&M University, spoke on the project's potential impact. Mahomes made history in the 1960s as the first black student to graduate from Texas A&M's Corps of Cadets. He also serves on the board of the Today Foundation.
Current Jefferson Mayor Charles Haggard, who has spent over 60 years in the town, looks to the church's rebirth as an important symbol of both history and progress.
"The church is an essential part of the fabric of Jefferson," he said. "It's important to make sure the church is saved and to see it as it once was, its role in Jefferson's history."
Evolving out of the African Church in Jefferson's pre-Civil War era, Union Baptist Church is one of the most prominent hubs of African-American history in Texas and is one of the oldest black churches in the state. For many it is a symbol of the clash of historical events following the end of the Civil War, the Reconstruction era, and one of the catalysts for the civil rights movement.
The church has long been a part of Jefferson's African American community, some families of which have lived in the area for approximately six generations.
The church's location at 520 Houston St. sits in a historic section of the city known as Sand Town. The area is a vital part of the community.
Jefferson is about 60 miles southwest of Texarkana on U.S. Highway 59 South.
A brief history
Years before Jefferson was chartered as a town, the church was started by East Texas slaves in the 1840s, whowere given the land by Captain William Perry ahead of the coming war. Giving land to slaves was a progressive act for the times. The plot would formally become the home of Union Baptist Church in 1868.
In its first iteration as the African Church, the building served as the earliest foundation in the struggle for African American Civil Rights. The second structure is still standing today and serves as an historical node in the struggle for equal rights.
The church was the site of significant post-war strife following the surrender of the South in 1865, including burnings, mob violence, and various other events that plagued the recently freed slaves attempting to make a new life during the Reconstruction era. The church was set ablaze in an 1868 arson and was not rebuilt until 1883.
Further complicating Jefferson's tumultuous history was its previously held designation as an inland port town. The first steamboats were seen taking the water in Jefferson in 1844. Jefferson was christened the "Riverport to the Southwest" as the only reliably functioning port in North Texas at the time.
Historians say Jefferson was thriving, regularly seeing large steamboats with up to 130 passengers and extravagant feasts on board. Jefferson suddenly had style, architecture, and dining as sophisticated as any other comparably busy port towns of the era. Jefferson soon began exporting goods specific to the region, only furthering its reputation as an economically powerful shipping hub.
While Jefferson prospered during this time, it came to an abrupt end some years after the Civil War when the Army Corps of Engineers removed a log raft that then reduced water levels in Big Cypress Bayou and thus was no longer navigable by steamboat. Soon the advent of the railroad era would come to dominate Jefferson's infrastructure.
The likelihood a church could survived such dramatic changes in the town's economic health makes its current status all the more noteworthy.
The meticulous process that brought Union Baptist back to its proper state involved a number of repurposed materials specific to the church's design, including 90% of the original wood used in the floors, ceilings, and walls of the main sanctuary. An extensive survey and multiple planning sessions ensured Union Baptist Church would reflect the church's physical history. Rust and paint removal was required, as well as new paint reapplications and caulking in most areas of the building.
Union Baptist was saved from a city wrecking ball by way of a petition circulated by the Marion County Historical Commission. From there, Collins' involvement made the restoration possible.
Renovating Union Baptist Church also was made possible in part by a grant from The Texas Preservation Trust Fund, which secured the services of Carter Design Associates, an architecture firm that specializes in large-scale preservation projects. A matching grant from the Today Foundation further aided the restoration. Additional contributions of materials were made by Norbord, a producer of wood-based panels and one of the largest employers in Jefferson.
Thus Union Baptist Church now enters a new era. Nearly 175 years of priceless Texas history has been saved. The church will soon feature a number of public events as a premier heritage center. Details are still pending.
(For more information, visit collinsacademy.com online.)
(The Today Foundation supports technology initiatives, economic education, and youth leadership programs in under-served and rural communities. The Collins Academy develops innovative educational programs and creates hands-on learning opportunities that focus on environmental conservation and historic preservation.
It also seeks to preserve and maintain a number of historic sites throughout Jefferson.)