About Us / Our History
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.”
The 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 in what was 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 known as the Hayti Heritage Center, has always been an important monument in Durham. W. E.B. Dubois stated: “Never in all my travels have I 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 structure’s role in community development continues today.
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 described the towers, stepped buttress and bays as powerful and at times almost overpowering. The entrances into the sanctuary opened onto the chancel focal point which was a huge ornate pipe organ flanked by two lancer stained glass windows. The organ, built by the W.H. Reisner Manufacturing Company, Inc., had two manuals and twenty-nine ranks.
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 to form the base of each tier are pendant drops. Two very large electric fans 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 slender columns begins on each side of the center aisle.
Twenty-four stained glass windows enhance the beauty and dignity of the former sanctuary. Most are memorials to individuals who made outstanding financial contributions and/or gave dedicated service to St. Joseph’s Church.
Each window 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 honored.
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 philanthropist 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.”