Like religious worshipers around the world, residents of the historic Brown Chapel AME turned off the lights and locked the doors at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic because it was unsafe to gather for worship with a deadly virus in circulation. For a time, the historic church that started a national suffrage movement in Selma, Alabama, was banned.
What the members found upon their return was heartbreaking: Termites had eaten so much wood that parts of the structure were no longer stable, Juanda Maxwell said, and water leaks damaged the walls. Mold was growing in parts of the building, where hundreds of people gathered before Alabama State Troopers attacked voting rights protesters on Bloody Sunday in 1965 at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
“He’s in horrible shape,” Maxwell said. “It’s a difficult time. Because we’ve been closed for a year, it has exacerbated the water supply problem.”
The red-brick church, with distinctive twin spiers and domed ceiling, tops the list of the nation’s most endangered historic places this year, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation, a non-profit organization that works to highlight and preserve endangered sites. Other places on the list include:
— Chicano/a Murals painted on the sides of buildings in Colorado inspired by the human rights and cultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
– The Deborah Chapel, a Jewish mortuary building established in 1886 in Hartford, Connecticut.
— Francisco Sanchez Elementary School, the gated centerpiece of the town of Umatac, Guam.
– Minidoka National Historic Site, where more than 13,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II in Jerome, Idaho.
— Camp Naco, a 1919 base for the Black Buffalo Soldiers along the US-Mexico border in Naco, Arizona.
– Picture Cave in Warrenton, Missouri, home to native artwork dating back over 1,200 years by the Osage Nation.
– Brooks Park Art and Nature Center, the home and art studio in East Hampton, New York, of James Brooks and Charlotte Park, who played an important role in the Abstract Expressionist movement in American art.
— Palmer Memorial Institute, a boarding school built in 1902 for young blacks in Greensboro, North Carolina.
– Olivewood Cemetery, an African-American cemetery in Houston, Texas, dating from 1875 and containing over 4,000 graves.
— Jamestown, the site of Jamestown, Virginia, where the first slaves arrived in America and where the first publicly elected assembly in the United States met.
Brown Chapel, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Alabama, was the site of preparations for a suffrage march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965, when police beat up marchers led by the late Rep. John Lewis , then a young activist. Weeks later, thousands gathered there ahead of the march from Selma to Montgomery led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Maxwell is among a group of Brown Chapel members serving in a foundation trying to raise money for repairs estimated at more than $4 million, she said. The church, located in a public housing community, has only a few dozen regular members, so it relies on outside grants and donations to fund the work.
The National Park Service has previously awarded a $1.3 million grant for the restoration of the church, which was built in 1908 by a once-enslaved black builder, AJ Farley, and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1997.
“Our goal is to try to get over $3 million in grants to do the groundwork. After that, we hope to get more private donations,” Maxwell said.
With members unable to congregate in the building since repair work began in October, Maxwell said, the few people still in attendance continue to meet online.
“We’re zooming in. The pastor is looking for a place,” she said.