St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church – Part 1
St. Paul’s has been nominated to become a Santa Barbara City historic landmark and is working toward State and National recognition as well. Organized by architect Robert Ooley, F.A.I.A., a group of volunteers has been gathering historic information about the church to support the nominations; I was lucky enough to be among them.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in the Northeastern states in the late 1700s because black parishioners were being excluded from full participation in Methodist Episcopal churches. The A.M.E. denomination, which became independent from the Methodist Episcopal church, reached the Pacific Coast in the early 1850s, and, after the Civil War, reached out to former slaves in the South to bring many of them into the fold. Consequently, by 1880 A.M.E. membership in the United States had reached 400,000.
Grace Methodist Episcopal Church was established in Santa Barbara in 1868. It may have been denominationally separate from its African counterpart, but it clearly supported the advancement of the race held so long in bondage. In 1904, the church hosted the glee club from Claflin University in South Carolina, which had opened its doors in 1869. From its genesis down to the present, the school has provided quality higher education to men and women regardless of race, complexion or religion.
At the Los Angeles district A.M.E. Church of Zion conference in 1903, the Reverend Martin W. Bynum had been honored for his untiring efforts to build up the district and make it strong. In November 1905, Rev. Bynum came to Santa Barbara to officially organize the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Zion. With a growing population of African Americans in Santa Barbara, the establishment of a church had become desirable. The Morning Press reported that it was Bynum’s intent, and that of his flock, “… to maintain a close watch on the social welfare of the negroes in this city, and co-operate heartily in all worthy efforts for the betterment of their condition.”
By the end of November, an ad in the newspaper read, “A.M.E. Zion Church. Channel City hall. M.W. Bynum pastor. Services at 11 am and 7:30 pm. All invited.” (Channel City Hall once stood at the southeast corner of Carrillo and Chapala streets.) The A.M.E. Church of Zion was actually a different sect than the A.M.E.; the former having been founded earlier in New York and the latter in Philadelphia.
For some unknown reason, the church in Santa Barbara quickly became affiliated with the A.M.E. rather than A.M.E.Z. Bynum had planned to remain in Santa Barbara, but it was not to be. By February 1906, a new pastor was in charge, Rev. Silas L. Wright, and services were held in a new venue, the former Grace M.E. church building on the corner of Alisos and Yanonali streets. The search for a permanent home, however, continued.
By March of 1906, the A.M.E. church had purchased a lot on the corner of Haley and Canal (Olive) streets, as well as building stones to be used in the structure. The contract for the work was let to Nathaniel F. Hill, an African American born in Georgia about 1853. Hill had brought his family to Santa Barbara sometime after 1900, and they became founding and lifelong members of the church.
Money needed to be raised to complete the edifice, however, and the members advertised an entertainment of music and recitations after which, stated the news article of August 1906, “A bounteous feast will be spread. There will be chicken and lots of good things to eat.”
Unfortunately, several weeks later, Rev. S.L. Wright became ill and the bishop sent the Reverend Robert E. Arrington to replace him to complete the construction of the church. A native of Meriden, Mississippi, Arrington had obtained his religious training at the A.M.E. school in Ohio and had served at various towns throughout California for the previous 10 years.
More money was needed, but Arrington didn’t want to ask people to contribute outright to the cause. His plan was to offer an Old Fashioned Southern Dinner given by the women of the A.M.E. in a vacant store at 430 State Street in October. Once the newspaper published the menu, it’s doubtful anyone would have stayed away. Arrington told the press, “A southern dinner is the sort of thing the fine colored cooks used to prepare for the great mansions on the southern plantations before the war. This particular dinner is to consist of chicken gumbo, baked chicken pie, ham and cabbage, sweet potato and squash pies, barbecued pork, baked sweet potatoes, and salad, – all for twenty-five cents, with ice-cream and cake a little extra. The idea is to catch the palate of the white folks.”
The idea was an excellent one, for they came to the dinner in droves! Santa Barbarans were no strangers to chicken dinners. In fact, starting in 1889, chicken dinners were the go-to Sunday meal, possibly because pious housewives insisted on keeping the Sabbath. Every restaurant in town offered Sunday chicken dinners. Even French chef Lucien Abadie at his Delmonico Restaurant on State Street offered the choice of a French Chicken dinner (with velouté sauce) or a plain Chicken Dinner. At the Chriss Grill, one had a choice of roast chicken, fricassee chicken or stewed Spanish chicken. Both the Clairmont and Alhambra restaurants offered chicken dinners with all the fixin’s for 25 cents; and on Easter Sunday, Thayer’s restaurant added ice cream for an extra ten cents. Sundays were fairly clucking!
Throughout town, the churches used chicken dinners to raise funds. By 1898, the members of the Congregational church had become famous for their chicken pie dinners. In 1902, the ladies of the Presbyterian church offered chicken pie, giblet sauce, mashed potatoes, baked beans, cabbage salad, spiced oranges, and cake for 35 cents. Proceeds were applied to the pipe organ fund. And in 1914, the Lutheran ladies made a fine chicken dinner “just like mother used to make” for 35 cents. Dessert was included and featured old fashioned, juicy pies.
The fundraiser for the AME had been so successful, that the ladies of the church decided to hold another one in February 1907. The advertisement in the paper stated, “We hope the good people will not eat at home, and come and eat some of our southern dinner, cooked like mamma used to cook it.”
By now, the women of the A.M.E. had become savvy to the general perception that French cuisine was superior to any other. Feeling up to the job, since she worked as a cook for the Sawyer family in Montecito, Sidney DeBose’s bill of fare included “chicken gumbo soup à la New Orleans; salad; potato à la Mississippi; New England dinner à la Boston; old fashioned chicken pie à la Alabama; spare ribs of pork; sweet potatoes; corn bread à la Georgia; hot biscuits; dessert, lemon pie (ice cream and cake 10 cents extra); coffee and creme à la Texas.”
Having achieved success for Santa Barbara’s A.M.E. church, Rev. Arrington was called to another post for 1908, and the Rev. Thomas Benjamin Bynum presided in Santa Barbara for that year. Though the new church had been recently completed, it already needed repairs, so Mrs. Martha Thomas hosted a fundraiser at her home on Crandall Street (today’s Gray). This time the women of the church offered a bazaar selling “fancy work” made by the members of the church. The Morning Press reported, “Music floated in the air above the chatter of voices of the throng which filled the house. Gaily colored lanterns burned on the lawn in front of the house, lighting up the prettily decorated booths on the front porch.”
Between 1910 and 1915, there was little mention of the A.M.E. in the local papers, perhaps because a second church for African Americans had opened, Mount Olive Baptist Church on Gutierrez Street.
In 1914, Booker T. Washington came to town to speak at the newly built State Normal School. Located on the Riviera, this school would eventually become UCSB. In July the presiding elder of the A.M.E. church for the district came to Santa Barbara for the quarterly Concert held at the church. In November, the church hosted a Thanksgiving concert with song, recitation, scripture reading, and instrumental duets.
Then, at the end of 1915, the church launched a building campaign. The congregation was not satisfied with its current building and wanted to erect one that would be “a greater credit to itself.” Their last event of the year in the old building was a whopper. The public was invited to Watch Night services on December 31st and to the 53rd anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1.
It was an extensive program, worthy of listing below because it demonstrates the passion, intelligence, talent, and sincerity of this group of African Americans who were forbidden from living in certain parts of town, forbidden by law from marrying outside their race (as were whites and Chinese), often denied an education, and limited in job opportunities. Some had been enslaved, most had parents who had been held in bondage. The program was as follows:
- Opening Chorus, “America”
- Song, “Lead Kindly Light”
- Emancipation Proclamation, L. C. Smith
- Solo, “The Holy City,” Mrs. Bessie Alexander
- Lincoln’s Speech at Gettysburg, Master Carl Echols
- Chorus, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”
- (1) “Progress of the Negro Race in 53 Years of Freedom,” Charles B. Dolton, D.D. pastor Grace M.E. church. (2) “Religious Advancement,” Wm. Green. (3) “Intellectual Advancement,” Byron Conway (4) “Financial Advancement,” Thomas Kinard.
- Instrumental, “Nearer My God to Thee.” Transcription Brilliante, by Mrs. Pearl Buckner and Masters Norris Hester and J.E. Cooper (grandson of G.E. Forney)
- The Negro Woman as a Factor in the advancement of her race, Mrs. L.C. Smith
- Quartet, L.C. Smith, Charles Echols, J.K. Payne, Thomas Kinard
- Closing remarks by Rev. J.A. Duncan.
The membership also passed a resolution endorsing Rev. J. Arthur Duncan’s plans for the erection of a new and modern church building and planned to appeal to the general public for help in this undertaking.
(Sources: Pastor Jeffery Clark of St. Paul A.M.E. church, contemporary newspaper articles; https://www.ame-church.com/our-church/our-history/; letter from Anna L. (King) Gonzalez to Jessica Schley and transcribed by Roxanne Lapidus, Lilia Tuckerman’s granddaughters, plus author’s email communication with Anna. Scrapbook articles and notes belonging to Lilia Tuckerman and passed along by Roxanne; Deceased membership list from St. Paul A.M.E.; ancestry.com resources of censuses, slave schedules, voter registration lists, city directories, etc.; online historic newspaper resources; AME district website; Sanborn and other maps; Santa Barbara News-Press, 1992; Santa Barbara Magazine, Fall 1994, p 132; Dedication Service program, St. Paul African M.E. Church, January 20th, 1938)