The History of St. Joseph’s AME Church and the St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation

Louis Alston

In 1868 Edian Markham, an African American Methodist Episcopal Missionary and former slave, came into Durham to establish a church. He brought property from Minerva Fowler and built his first place for worship, a “Brush Arbor.” Four posts were anchored in the ground surrounded at the top with four boards covered with branches forming the roof; the ground was the floor. Those who came to worship brought boxes, chairs and homemade stools or sat on the bare ground. As winter approached the little band of worshippers and Rev. Markham built a log church. More members were added to the six who organized the Church that was called Union Bethel AME Church. Rev. Markham left Durham in 1870. Two more frame churches were built, the first by Rev. George Hunter. As the congregation grew and more pastors came, it was decided by the members and pastors that a brick structure was needed. Under the leadership of Rev. Andrew Chambers the church flourished. The cornerstone was laid by the masons in 1891 and the name was changed to “St. Joseph Church.”

St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church

The Grand SteepleThe original structure of St. Joseph’s AME Church with its grand steeple and elegant stained glass windows, constructed in 1891 through the efforts of a proud and determined African American congregation and the support of local white philanthropists, has long symbolized the dignity and resolve of a people once known as the most prosperous African American community in the United States. Eventually this community fell victim to urban renewal, as did the existence of theater productions, blues and jazz artists renderings, practicing medical and education professionals, and entrepreneurs of every sort. The historic St. Joseph’s Church building, now know as the Hayti Heritage Center, has always been an important monument in Durham. W. E.B. Dubois stated, “never in all my travels have a seen a church as great as St. Joseph’s.” The church’s stately architecture was as distinct as the community for which it was built; it exemplified the spiritual nourishment of its members and their pivotal role in the civil rights movement of the era. The historic structures role in community development continues.

A Philadelphia architect, Samuel L. Leary, in plan and composition, designed one of Durham’s more interesting vernacular examples of Victorian religious buildings. It is reminiscent of the Richardsonian Romanesque design of the Gothic Revival from the Neo-Classical movement. The bricks for the exterior were fired by the Fitzgeralds, Black artisans who moved from Chester County, Pennsylvania. The Historic Significance Report describes the towers, stepped buttress and bays as powerful and at times almost overpowering. The entrances into the sanctuary open onto the chancel focal pointa huge ornate pipe organ flanked by two lancer stained glass windows. The organ, built by the W.H. Reisner Manufacturing Company, Inc., has two manuals and twenty-nine ranks.

The Ceiling, Chandelier, and Electrical Fans

The pressed tin ceiling is painted a brilliant turquoise accented by gold on an off-white background. Large coffers formed by bands of reeding with plaited ribbon shape the squares. Identically trimmed diamond shapes fill each square and floral bosses decorate the intersections for the coffers. The margins are filled with guilloche molding intertwined with avillan crosses.

Hanging dramatically over the center aisles is a two-tiered Art Nouveau chandelier. A buttercup shape encircles the stem of an opalescent glass light fixture. Falling in open quatrefoils form the base of each tier are pendant drops. High on the left wall are two very large electric fans that were installed by a Black electrician, E.N. Toole, during the 1930′s. The pews have scrolled arms above flat-paneled lancet arches. A second story wooden gallery supported by six slender columns begins on each side of the center aisle.
St. Joseph’s Memorial Windows

Twenty-four stained glass windows enhance the beauty and dignity of this former sanctuary. Most are memorials to individuals who made outstanding financial contributions and/or gave dedicated service to St. Joseph’s Church.

Each of these windows tells a story often based on Biblical references. Through the years some of the names of the those memorialized have been erased by time or were destroyed by vandalism. Fortunately, the Scarborough Papers give a description of several of the windows and the names of the people they memorialize.

A window facing old Fayetteville Street at the front entrance keeps alive the memory of Edian Markham, the organizer. To the right, Moses Tablet memorializes Rev. George Hunter, the first builder of Union Bethel frame church. In the center facing old Fayetteville Street is the image of “our friend” Washington Duke.

A closing quote from the Scarborough Papers for all the windows in the sanctuary reads, “These windows add greatly to the spiritual significance of St. Joseph’s as they emit a golden radiance that time cannot dim.”