Alabama Church Linked to Famous Black Architect, Wallace A. Rayfield

John Godbey/Decatur Daily Morgan County Archivist John Allison and the Rev. Wylheme Ragland examine the Wayman Chapel AME Church on Church Street Northwest in Decatur.
John Godbey/Decatur Daily
Morgan County Archivist John Allison and the Rev. Wylheme Ragland examine the Wayman Chapel AME Church on Church Street Northwest in Decatur.

A Decatur church with an unassuming exterior has been linked to one of the state’s first licensed black architects and is 30 years older than previously thought.

Documents found in a Birmingham barn more than two decades ago and research by local historians are giving Wayman Chapel AME Church on Church Street Northwest a new spot in Decatur history and will change what is printed on a planned historical marker.

The church is one of three famed architect Wallace A. Rayfield designed in Decatur, the Rev. Wylheme Ragland said.

“Rayfield was the second licensed black architect in Alabama and is most famous for designing the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham,” Ragland said.

Recovering history

Rayfield’s link to Wayman Chapel might have been lost to history if not for a find Baptist minister and retired insurance agent Allen Durough made in October 1993. He was preparing to raze an old barn on his property in Bessemer when the contractor — a Church of God minister — requested to salvage some of the lumber.

In his 2010 book about Rayfield, Durough wrote he found 411 printing plates in the last room, which had a rotten and hazardous floor. Because of the danger, he said he wanted to leave the boxes, but the contractor “insisted on getting them.”

Carol Watkins, 58, of Decatur, is one of about 50 members on roll at the church. She said she was not aware of the church’s historical significance until Ragland brought it to her attention.

“My family has been members in this church a long time,” she said. “We always thought the church was at a different location.”

Watkins’ great-grandfather, G.W. Eldridge, was a trustee when the church was remodeled in 1938.

“His name is on one of the cornerstones,” she said proudly.

Before Durough published his book, Ragland said he was aware Rayfield designed the second King’s Memorial United Methodist Church on Lafayette Street and First Baptist Church on Vine Street.

“But I had no idea about his connection to Wayman Chapel,” Ragland said.

For about five years, Ragland, historian Peggy Towns and Morgan County Archivist John Allison looked through hundreds of musty documents to give the historically black church its proper place in Decatur history.

Wayman Chapel’s printed history said it started in 1902, but research dates its beginning to 1877, when former slave T.W. Coffee was assigned to the “Decatur Mission,” Towns said. The church had six members, and he was paid $12 to serve six months.

Ragland said the church was identified as a mission because it did not have enough members to sustain it as a church.

“I’m not sure when it became a station church, but that’s one of the mysteries we’re trying to figure out,” he said.

There’s also the mystery of the cornerstone linked to Rayfield’s design that was mentioned in an August 1926 article Ragland discovered in The Decatur Daily.

The newspaper story was inviting “churches and lodges” to participate in the “laying of the cornerstone of Wayman Chapel.”

Durough’s documents said construction was to start March 4, 1926.

Two of the cornerstones mentioned the church was rebuilt in 1938 and remodeled in 1943.

Allison said the existing structure, however, is similar to the church’s appearance on a 1927 Sanborn map of Decatur.

“We know this is a very significant church and part of Decatur’s history,” he said. “The challenge is linking everything together.”

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Source: Decatur Daily | Deangelo McDaniel

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