A Monmouth College professor gave the black church a boost
Editor’s note: This column was originally published on January 17, 2017.
As we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day this week, today’s column looks back on a positive episode in Monmouth’s early civil rights history. While Dr King sat in a Birmingham jail in the spring of 1963, the white and black residents of Monmouth worked hand in hand to rebuild a local African-American church, which had been founded shortly after the Civil War.
According to the 1865 census, Monmouth had a population of 3,700, including 87 colored people. As Reconstruction began, the number of African American residents was steadily increasing, and certain segments of the white population, particularly church and university leaders, were increasingly interested in helping to settle them.
In November 1868 a meeting was held in a hall on South Main Street, in which the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) was founded with 12 members. The following spring, the trustees purchased land on the west side of South Second Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, where they built a small 22 x 30 foot house of worship. The cost, including the lot, was $800.
In 1890 the land was sold and a new one was purchased on the east side of South Third, south of East Seventh, where the present Street Department building is located. The church building was moved to this site and in 1896 it was extensively remodeled, with an addition to the east of the building. At the dedication service in July, Reverend Richard Haney of First Methodist Church and Reverend WT Campbell of Second United Presbyterian Church gave the prayer and scripture lesson. The pastor, Reverend JM Thomas, explained that the cost of the addition was $337 and the debt at the time was $157, with $125 borrowed, leaving $32 needed at a time. The sum of $35.36 was contributed by those present to help pay the debt.
When the M. & St. L. Railroad was built along Seventh Avenue, the church decided to relocate and moved to its current location at 900 South Third St. The land was purchased in 1912, but it would take five years before the church could be completed. St. James AME Church, consisting of a brick-veneer house of worship and rectory, was dedicated in 1917.
Because the church was built economically, with a lot of volunteer work, it began to show signs of aging in the 1950s. A severe windstorm in 1959 was particularly damaging, forcing the building to be flattened in December 1961, and a campaign for a new church was started under the pastorate of Reverend Joseph Evans, who moved worship services to Harding School. With only 58 church members at the time and an estimated price tag of $8,300, building a new church was a daunting task.
On August 21, 1962, Professor Carl Gamer of the Government Department at Monmouth College published a large advertisement in the Review Atlas, in which he wrote: “As the son of a Civil War veteran whose father answered President Lincoln’s plea for help in freeing this nation from slavery, I have always been interested in the Africans among us who were among the first Americans to be brought to this country.
“As a visitor to St. James AME Church on Sunday,” he continued, “I noticed that they took three offerings and then asked for donations of cement blocks so the building could continue. They asked the stewards to go get more money. They asked the members to come out and help with the actual construction.
“Pastor Evans and his small flock of faithful members are working very hard to rebuild their house of worship. Representatives from other congregations: Galesburg, Quincy, Kewanee, Davenport and more came to help them… They now need 1,500 cement blocks at their construction site, 910 South 3rd Street. They were only 400 on Sunday. Blocks cost 30c each. Lumber yards or material companies transport them.
“It occurred to me that Monmouth is renowned for its civic spirit. There are plenty of people willing to lend a hand where they see a worthwhile cause and find that people are trying hard to help themselves. If you are sure, this ad aims to draw your attention to a need. The undersigned places this ad without asking anyone.
The player’s announcement had an impact. Over the next three weeks, $466 was contributed to the building fund, and on September 17, the Chicago Tribune published a letter from Gamer which noted that while black churches in the south were being burned down, citizens of Monmouth were rallying to build one. . He also pointed out that the schools in Monmouth were integrated during a severe depression in the 1870s, when it was decided that it would be costly and foolish to support two separate school systems.
On September 23, the AME choir was invited to perform at the First Methodist Church. Offerings from this service added $668 to the fund, and all the blocks needed to build the church had been donated.
On October 27, Monmouth College YWCA and YMCA students spent a day volunteering their services to the construction project. They built scaffolding for the new church, which would be 48 feet wide by 68 feet long, containing a sanctuary for 150 people, a fellowship hall, a kitchen, a pastor’s office, a steward’s room, and bathroom.
In April 1963, the Reverend Russell S. Brown of Chicago, general secretary of the AME Church, was the speaker at the second annual testimony dinner for the church’s building fund, held at the Colonial Hotel.
Reverend Robert Cox took over the campaign in September 1963, paying over $2,000 in arrears and raising $2,500 for the building fund. Officers were installed, the directors being Mrs. Daisy Brooks, secretary; Kenneth Wallace, Arthur Skinner, Charles Peoples, Lewis Kelly, Walter Blue and Mrs. Nadine Weathers. Named as stewards were Charles Patterson (pastor’s steward), Mrs. Harriett Wallace (church treasurer), Mrs. Doris Griffin (clerk-clerk), Hugh Sanders, Mrs. Eva Johnson, Mrs. Naomi Johnson, Archie Pinney, and Mrs. Edna Hamilton. Mrs. Gene Kelly has been appointed assistant pastor.
An interracial construction committee has been formed to provide professional construction assistance for the construction of a durable structure. During this time, many community efforts added to the building fund, including a “Beacon Day” sponsored by the Monmouth Council of Churches which raised $600 from citizens on the town center streets.
On October 3, 1964, the Review Atlas published a photo of the roof, finally paid for after two years of construction. Volunteers provided the labor needed to complete the roof in one day. Volunteer carpenters included Gail and Robert Irey, Eldon Rhea, Robert Munson, Kenneth Sharp, Bill Waller, Dick Thomas, Clelley Hogue and Leonard Durch. A dedication ceremony for the completed church was held later that fall.
Today, like many small churches, St. James AME continues to face challenges. It was closed for renovations for five years, before reopening in 2014. Last October, the Reverend Tyson Parks III of Galesburg became its new pastor at the church, which now has 25-30 members. He hopes to reach out to Monmouth College students and others in the community to increase ranks and continue to expand his programming.
Jeff Rankin is editor and historian of Monmouth College. A long-time resident of Monmouth, he has been researching local history for over three decades.