By BOB PALMER
Jimplecute News Editor
JEFFERSON – A full sanctuary welcomed Union Baptist Church on Houston Street back to life Saturday with a renewed purpose amid hymns and glowing remarks.
“We want this church to be a living history center,” Richard Collins, president of the Collins Academy which largely funded the $500,000 project with the assistance of Norbord and the Schluter Foundation, said.
Collins said the historically African-American church, which had fallen into disrepair in recent years, was a testimony to the “character” and “perseverance” of its many members who had to endure slavery, prejudice, discrimination and segregation.
Collins Academy projects the future use of the restored church as a “place of education,” “a place of worship,” and “a place of community.”
Collins credited Pency Jackson Floyd as starting the drive to save the church.
Floyd’s brother, Tommie L. Jackson, hailed Collins as a gift from God, “a ram caught in the bush.” Jackson, on behalf of his family, presented Collins with a plaque recognizing Collins Academy’s role in restoring the historic structure.
“The Secret Place”
The Wiley A Cappella Choir under the baton of Dr. Gregory A. McPherson performed a new composition by McPherson. The director of choral music at Wiley said he felt inspired to pen “The Secret Place” after a visit to Union Baptist. A video of the world premiere of the performance is available on http://www.Jimplecute1848.com.
►Watch the Wiley a Cappella choir perform “The Secret Place”
McPherson, who is legally blind, explained that his inspiration was deeply rooted in that he felt the “rhythm of life” upon entering the grounds of Union Baptist Church.
“I was able to see with the eye of the Spirit,” McPherson said after the performance.
The choir also performed several hymns, spirituals and gospel pieces.
McPherson is an internationally recognized composer, arranger and songwriter whose works have appeared on soundtracks for movies and television shows.
The Impact of the Church
Texas A&M regent and Tyler attorney, Bill Mahomes, reminded the gathering of the critical role the black church has played in the lives of African-Americans. “They church has been that continuous, strong, moral, stabilizing force that has always held together the social, spiritual and educational fabric of African-American life,” Mahomes, who also has been involved in numerous public infrastructure projects, said.
“The Union Baptist Church has endured the best and worst of times – just as African-Americans have – but seems to keep coming back to life,” Mahomes pointed out.
Mahomes sees the reborn Union Baptist as a symbol of hope.
“Given the progress black communities all over the country have made of the last 50-plus years, I believe that force for progress and understanding which this building represents will continue,” Mahomes said. “Because of the cooperative efforts that have taken place in this community, this church building will continue to serve as a symbol of the Marion County African-American community’s past, present and future identity.”
The Today Foundation board member sees the re-purposed Union Baptist as playing a role in “not only the lives of black citizens in the Jefferson and Marshall areas but for all people of all races and backgrounds.”
Mahomes also predicted Union Baptist will draw visitors to the area.
“In years to come, UBC will be a major tourist destination because of its compelling story and the historic role in the life of the region,” Mahomes said.
Texas Freedom Colonies
Dr. Andrea Roberts with the Department of Urban Planning in the Texas A&M College of Architecture sees Union Baptist as a bright example of African-American “freedom colonies” that sprung to life following the Civil War.
“During the Reconstruction era, freed African-Americans were able to create independent communities,” Roberts explained. Invariably a church would anchor these often remote communities.
“At these churches was where the decision making took place,” Roberts said.
During hard times like the Depression, however, many African-Americans moved to cities seeking work, leaving the churches whose shuttered remains can be spotted near county roads.
“Although they may now live in Houston, these former residents considered this place to be home,” Roberts said.
The A&M professor said Marion County had 18 known black communities. She said restoration of Union Baptist was “center to efforts to revitalize those communities.”
Making the Dream Come True
During his remarks, Collins recalled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. “This church is an integral part of making that dream come true,” Collins declared.
“It is a passion of mine to make that happen.”
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