This is one of an occasional series of reports on people, events and places in Marion County’s past.
From Staff Reports
JEFFERSON – Gary Endsley, Collins Academy director, gave a brief history of the Union Baptist Church Saturday as part of the celebration to commemorate the completion of refurbishing efforts. “Oh, if these walls could talk, what stories they could tell us of the strife and turmoil,” Endsley said.
Endsley asserted that Union Baptist Church deserved a place in the roster of famous Civil Rights locations across the United States. “This endangered place and landscape of concern played an important role in Texas history, Civil War history, and Civil Rights history; yet this historical role as a node among the Texas Freedom Colonies has been suppressed,” Endsley’s research showed.
The property was donated by slave owners to provide a location for religious services for slaves. Listed as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark for under told stories by the Texas Historical Commission, the congregation was founded in 1842 when steamboat Cpt. William Perry allocated a portion of his land holdings to enslaved and Freedmen in Jefferson.
This was a progressive act for the times, and would go on to formally become the home of Union Baptist Church in 1868. Outrages were perpetrated against the congregation, murders of congregants and the first building burned. “Union Baptist embodies the collision of the Civil War ending, Reconstruction beginning, and where the struggle for civil rights was born,” Endsley revealed.
“Union Baptist represents an epicenter of African-American religious and political activities that served as the catalyst for Union occupation of Texas in the Reconstruction era South, the site where-at any one time-1,000-2,000 Union Army soldiers were camped among her ashes.”
The establishment of a Baptist congregation came under the leadership of the Rev. Patterson.Reacquisition of title to the land for the current structure was made possible by the Schluter Foundation.
The establishment of a Missionary Baptist congregation was led by the Reverend Duncan, Jim Crow Laws attempted to limit civil liberties for blacks, but the 14th Amendment to the Constitution gave blacks rights under the law and the 15th Amendment to the Constitution established the right to vote.
While serving the community needs, the first structure blazed a trail ahead, figuratively and literally, by hosting the Freedmen’s Bureau, Radical Republican, and Loyal League activities that gave birth to the Civil Rights Movement a short time later. The costs for initiating civil rights were very high.
On the night of October 4, 1868, the same year the church was originally organized, 70 – 100 hooded men ignited a firestorm of lawlessness and violence that would torment the African American communities of this region and their white supporters in this epicenter of Reconstruction era retribution.
This reign of terror went on for many months.The Union Baptist structure was burnt to the ground by Knights of the Rising Sun (Ku Klux Klan affiliate) mob just after the public murder of George W. Smith, the “carpetbagger” turned public servant who organized enslaved and Freedmen through meetings at the African Church to implement policies of The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, Abandoned Lands (Freedmen’s Bureau), Radical Republicans, and the Loyal League.
Meetings rotated at local churches and similar venues in the Northeast Texas region. Justice was never served for Smith’s murder and the arson of Union Baptist’s first structure, and the whole affair came to be better known throughout history as the Stockade Trials.
The tragedy of one of the earliest black churches persevering through slavery only to burn during Reconstruction leaves a gaping chasm in the historical record.The congregation of 1868 did not mourn the past, but looked instead to the future.
In spite of Klan terrorization, the congregation persevered, rebuilt, and re-opened the doors of Union Baptist in 1883.To commemorate their long journey, the congregation placed an engraved cornerstone in the new church structure that reads, “Organized 1868 – Rebuilt 1883.”
The role of Union Baptist shifted from being in the hot seat to being a survivor in the 20th century, a direct result of a dramatic economic shift that occurred in local transportation when the steam boat was suddenly replaced with the railroad when dynamite with nitroglycerine was used for the first time by US Army Corp of Engineers to remove the log jam that, ironically, created Port Jefferson.
Endsley reported that the church remained a local touchstone through the 20th Century and now into the 21st Century. “These walls would also tell us of youth moving away to find work; the stewardship of the Jackson family lead by its patriarch Racket Jackson, and the temporary closing of doors due to the demise of the Sandtown community it served,” Endsley told the full room.
A petition was launched to save the structure from the city wrecking ball by the Marion County Historical Commission, and Bonnie Jackson involved Richard Collins in the saving of the building.
The celebration Saturday recognized the completely restored multi-purpose structure ready to add new chapters to its life story.
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