Union Baptist Church here has undergone a complete restoration and brings one of the state’s most important historic sites as close as possible to its original 1883 condition.
While the church was designated a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark in 2011, it spent decades in a state of increasing disrepair. The multi-year project has been overseen by the Jefferson-based Collins Academy and the Dallas-based Today Foundation. Both organizations were founded by Richard H. Collins.
Collins is a philanthropist and a preservationist who has underwritten multiple education and cultural initiatives across the state of Texas. He has deep family roots in East Texas. The signature element of a Collins project is to maintain authenticity by renovating a structure as historically accurate to its origins as possible.
Collins hosted a private opening celebration for the Union Baptist Church on Saturday.
“We believe our efforts will make Jefferson a leader in historic preservation and community involvement,” Collins said.
Bill Mahomes, legal attorney and Reagent at Texas A&M University, spoke on the project’s potential impact. Mahomes made history in the 1960s as the first black student to graduate from Texas A&M’s Corps of Cadets. He also serves on the board of the Today Foundation.
Current Jefferson Mayor Charles Haggard, who has spent over 60 years in the town, looks to the church’s rebirth as an important symbol of both history and progress.
“The church is an essential part of the fabric of Jefferson,” he said. “It’s important to make sure the church is saved and to see it as it once was, its role in Jefferson’s history.”
Evolving out of the African Church in Jefferson’s pre-Civil War era, Union Baptist Church is one of the most prominent hubs of African-American history in Texas and is one of the oldest black churches in the state. For many it is a symbol of the clash of historical events following the end of the Civil War, the Reconstruction era, and one of the catalysts for the civil rights movement.
The church has long been a part of Jefferson’s African American community, some families of which have lived in the area for approximately six generations.
The church’s location at 520 Houston St. sits in a historic section of the city known as Sand Town. The area is a vital part of the community.
Jefferson is about 60 miles southwest of Texarkana on U.S. Highway 59 South.
A brief history
Years before Jefferson was chartered as a town, the church was started by East Texas slaves in the 1840s, whowere given the land by Captain William Perry ahead of the coming war. Giving land to slaves was a progressive act for the times. The plot would formally become the home of Union Baptist Church in 1868.
In its first iteration as the African Church, the building served as the earliest foundation in the struggle for African American Civil Rights. The second structure is still standing today and serves as an historical node in the struggle for equal rights.
The church was the site of significant post-war strife following the surrender of the South in 1865, including burnings, mob violence, and various other events that plagued the recently freed slaves attempting to make a new life during the Reconstruction era. The church was set ablaze in an 1868 arson and was not rebuilt until 1883.
Further complicating Jefferson’s tumultuous history was its previously held designation as an inland port town. The first steamboats were seen taking the water in Jefferson in 1844. Jefferson was christened the “Riverport to the Southwest” as the only reliably functioning port in North Texas at the time.
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Source: Texarkana Gazette