April 20, 2023

St. James AME Church: A Symbol of Resiliency and Hope

On the night of December 10, 2021, an EF4 tornado—part of a supercell storm that produced the longest-tracked tornado system in history—tore through the city of Mayfield, Kentucky. The tornado wove a path of destruction through four states and caused the loss of 89 lives, destroying Mayfield’s historic architecture and heavily damaging its downtown buildings, including the historic St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church. The damage brought on by this supercell storm is just one example of the harmful effects of climate change on historic structures and communities.

“The destruction of St. James AME Church was caused by the continuing impact of climate change and the long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns,” said Bishop E. Anne Henning Byfield, presiding bishop of the 13th Episcopal District and Chair of the AME Social Action Committee. “This damage not only puts the health of humanity—especially African Americans—at risk, but also historic sites and communities. St. James AME Church has survived through various crises and transitions until the impact of weather.”

A view of a church immediately after a devastating tornado. While the tower remains, the exterior walls have collapsed.

photo by: Chris Black

A view of St. James AME Church just after the devastating tornado that hit Mayfield, Kentucky in 2021.

Recognizing the important role of the Black church has within its communities and American history, the Preserving Black Churches (PBC) program created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund—with leadership support from Lilly Endowment Inc.—offers a national strategy for historic Black churches that are both stewarded by active congregations and being repurposed for new uses in local communities.

“Black churches are a living testament to generations of achievement and resiliency, and their preservation is critical so that they can continue to serve as the epicenters of community and heritage,” said Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

To quickly address the damage caused to the church and its community, St. James AME received Action Fund’s first PBC Rapid Response Emergency grant.

Exterior view of a historic church as it is rehabilitated following a tornado. This view shows the exterior wall being rebuilt before bricks were added.

photo by: St. James AME Church

View of St. James AME Church in 2023. Both the south and north wall—shown here—will be reconstructed using historic bricks that were salvaged on site immediately after the storm.

Building Community at St. James AME Church

Just three years after Emancipation, the founding members of St. James AME Church organized in Mayfield’s Black Bottom neighborhood to minister to the community’s social, spiritual, and physical needs. By 1871, the growing congregation purchased a wood-frame structure on South 10th Street, which was lost to fire after only a few years of use. In 1894, the congregation bought land on South 8th Street and constructed a brick church with a central bell tower that the congregation calls home today.

Completed in 1923, St. James AME Church grew to play a pivotal role in the Western Kentucky AME district, hosting conference meetings and community gatherings, according to senior members and Pastor Gloria Lasco. Its membership included local business owners, educators, and notables such as renowned artist Helen LaFrance.

A view of a historic cornerstone surrounded by brick with the dates of the church-founded 1868.

photo by: St. James AME Church

The cornerstone of the St. James AME Church in Mayfield, Kentucky.

A view of the tower in a historic church in Kentucky.

photo by: St. James AME Church

The original tower at St. James AME Church survived the EF4 tornado and inspired the congregation to consider preservation of the 1923 edifice.

After the Storm

Preserving Black Churches offers Rapid Response Emergency grants to Black churches, congregations, and organizations to address the urgent need to access financial support to mitigate insufficient funding and closures from unforeseen fire damage, arson, water infiltration, tornados, natural disasters, and other issues.

Following the tornado, facing a collapsed roof and two severely damaged walls, St. James AME Church seemed lost. However, St. James AME’s leadership, with help from the the Kentucky Heritage Council (KHC), the state historic preservation office, contacted the Action Fund to help them save this historic landmark and community hub. While many Mayfield homeowners and agencies demolished their homes and institutional buildings, including the County’s historic courthouse, St. James AME Church’s members chose preservation. As a result, St. James AME Church remains one of the few historic resources actively being preserved in Mayfield, making it a symbol of resilience and hope for the entire city.

“The rebuilding of this historic building with a rich history of its members and mission is critical to the life of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and to Mayfield, Kentucky,” said Byfield. “The loss of historical buildings diminishes the opportunity for service and depreciates the legacy of our architecture and history. We are committed to restoration of St. James and to continue its leadership in the area of climate control and justice.”

A view of the interior of a historic church as it is being rehabilitated. At the far end there are a set of green doors.

photo by: St. James AME Church

Crew members of Ray Black and Son salvaged parts of the original wooden altar and other interior elements for later reuse or reproduction.

Creating a Vision Beyond the Rubble

Working with St. James AME Church’s leadership, the Action Fund identified rehabilitation and reconstruction as the best preservation treatment, and with support from the KHC, enlisted the help of Ray Black & Co., an experienced preservation contractor headquartered 40 minutes away in Paducah.

The Action Fund helped to engage the St. James AME Church congregation and leadership around their future, encouraging them to see beyond the rubble left in the tornado’s wake. Conscious of this unique opportunity, Leggs assembled a volunteer group of experts from around the nation to advise on best practices to mitigate future extreme weather and climate change impacts on this small but mighty church. This included combining rehabilitation for the surviving central tower and other elements of its historic fabric with reconstruction to replace what was lost. Part of this work included identifying key steps to conserve the church’s original Helen LaFrance mural, which was found fully intact amidst the wreckage following the tornado.

A wide view of a historic church with a fence around it and a sign in front indicating that it is being rebuilt with the help of various sponsors.

photo by: St. James AME Church

The St James AME congregation and leadership work to raise funds to design and reconstruct its sanctuary as exterior rehabilitation continues.

A view of a steel beam within the walls of a historic Black church in Kentucky during reconstruction and rehabilitation.

photo by: St. James AME Church

A detailed view of intermittent steel framing incorporated to mitigate against extreme weather.

A member of St. James AME and Mayfield resident, self-taught Black American artist Helen LaFrance created “memory paintings” depicting scenes of rural life in western Kentucky that drew comparisons to folk artists Clementine Hunter and Grandma Moses. LaFrance also created religious paintings in a more dramatic visual style, such as the mural depicting Jesus in the Garden of Gethesmane at St. James AME. Painted around 1955 on the concrete wall above the church’s hand-built altar, the mural was found fully intact amidst the resulting damage done by the tornado.

In addition to conservation work on the mural, the Rapid Response Emergency grant supported the successful completion of key construction tasks such as reinforcing the brick piers and foundation; strengthening the wall and truss systems with steel support frames to protect against extreme weather; reconstructing the walls and roof of the sanctuary; and repairing the annex roof.

A Testament for the Future

The $100K PBC Rapid Response Emergency grant, combined with St. James AME Church’s insurance, enabled contractor Ray Black & Son to stabilize and clean the site within six months after the fatal storm. By leveraging matching donations from the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, the Community Foundation of West Kentucky, and other donors, they were able to raise close to $570,000 for the key first phase of work at St. James AME Church.

“St. James AME Church’s preservation is a testament of preservation’s capacity to unite diverse communities,” said Chris Black, president of Ray Black & Son. “It tells the church’s and the community’s story of survival in the face of an overwhelming natural disaster. It keeps history alive.”

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Lawana Holland-Moore is the director of fellowships and interpretive strategies for the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

Melissa Jest is the senior manager, preservation projects for the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

By: Lawana Holland-Moore and Melissa Jest

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