St. Joseph AME, the Lord’s vineyard in Durham that did not do only missionary work but raised Black businesses in 1900s

Stephen Nartey November 27, 2022
St. Joseph AME Church. Image via Wiki

The St. Joseph African Methodist Episcopal Church began on a humble note with a modest makeshift structure made up of four posts planted in the ground with four boards nailed to each corner to provide congregants privacy in worship.

The roof of the early church was branches and worshippers walked on the bare floor. The harsh weather condition that comes with winter compelled the congregation to substitute the original arbor structure with logs. This log-like structure became a place of learning where many African Americans received basic education in Durham. It was also known as Freedmen’s School, according to Open Durham.

These are the antecedents before an African Methodist missionary and former slave Edian Markham and five others laid the building blocks for the church to be established in 1868. They purchased the land the AME church is presently occupying from Minerva Fowler.

The church in its early days was known as Union Bethel church after the original AME church was formed in Philadelphia in 1787. When Rev. George Hunter assumed leadership of the AME church in Durham after Rev. Markham’s short stint in 1870, he renovated the log structure. But, it was finally replaced by Rev W.D. Cook.

The turning point in the history of the church was a fundraising campaign organized by Rev. Andrew Chambers in 1890 to raise money for the rehabilitation of the church. Architect Samuel Leary who generously supported the fundraising drive moved down from Philadelphia to design and have the church built.

Leary is the brain behind several iconic structures such as the Cleveland St., Washington Duke building at Duke, the original Fire Station #1, the first Graded School and the Foushee House. There were reports that Leary’s architecture career suffered a casualty following the collapse of the original tower of the Washington Duke Building.

The present-day cornerstone for the St. Joseph AME church which was mounted in 1891 has Leary’s name on it. The bricks used in constructing the church were from Richard Fitzgerald’s brickyard. The structure has been hailed as one which combined the dense massing of Richardsonian Romanesque with elements borrowed from Gothic Revival with incorporation from the Neo-Classical movement.

W.E.B. Dubois once remarked that he had never seen a church as great as the St. Joseph AME church before despite being well-traveled. By the early 1900s, the church had evolved into supporting thriving business and residential districts, with civil rights activists Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Dubois praising it for being a model Black community for the middle class in Jim Crow South.

The proceeds from the businesses were used to support the church and its associated renovations over the years. Durham historically started as a community for freed slaves who had resettled there after emancipation, drawing inspiration from the name whites referred to such communities as reported by CNN.

The St. Joseph AME church is the engine of the community and the backbone for every successful middle-class inhabitant.

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