by Te’Erika the Oracle The New Orleans Tribune

Historic St. James A.M.E. Church’s upcoming 175th Anniversary is symbolic of the struggles, victories, and sustaining power of the indomitable spirit that enslaved Africans, free people of color, and today’s Black New Orleanians have infused into the community. 

Rev. Dr. Samuel H Boyd, Sr., of Jackson, Mississippi, who inspired the congregation as pastor for more than 10 years, will deliver the keynote sermon during a special service Sept. 15, to celebrate St. James A.M.E.’s anniversary. 

Located at 222 N Roman St., the church holds within its white walls, the joys, pains and progress of the New Orleans community.

St. James A.M.E’s senior pastor, Rev. Lloyd Washington began his ministry at the church in 1990 under Dr. Boyd’s leadership before being assigned to other churches across Louisiana and Mississippi. He returned as senior pastor in June 2019, succeeding Pastor Jay Augustine, who led the church since  November 2015.

“Our goal for this day is that the Lord Jesus will be honored through all of the preaching, singing, and worship,” says Carolyn Moore, anniversary celebration co-chair.

Traditionally, the Black church has been a sanctuary of safety and harbinger of justice for Black people. St. James A.M.E., the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Deep South, was born out of that tradition and continues to be a solid foundation of strength, a refuge during hard times, and a nurturer of the African-American spirit. 

From its humble beginnings and founding by free people of color in 1844, 17 years before the Civil War, to 2019, St. James A.M.E. remains a beacon of hope, a gathering place for the village, and a safe harbor of worship and help to all who attend. 

A place of fellowship for some of the city’s most outstanding leaders throughout history, Jordan Bankston Noble, Andrew Jackson’s drummer boy; Oscar Dunn, the first elected Black lieutenant governor in Louisiana; P.B.S. Pinchback, the first Black governor in Louisiana; educator and civic leader Albert Wicker; actor, producer and director, Tyler Perry; and Mr. & Mrs. Ellis Marsalis, Sr. are among past and current members of the church, contributing to its role as an anchor for justice and a soulful respite in New Orleans.

From the Beginning

In 1844, Rev. Charles Doughty, a blacksmith, led the newly formed congregation at a rented site at the corner of Villere and Bienville streets. The church faced opposition from police who were afraid the open meetings would incite slaves to seek their freedom. 

Despite efforts to disband the church, it flourished. In November 1848, the congregation purchased two lots on N. Roman Street. The entire congregation took part in the construction of the church, including women who carried bricks in their aprons. Construction was completed in 1851 and that building still stands today. 

Historic St. James became an official historic landmark on Oct. 26, 1982. 

Parts of the church building have been slightly updated three times in its history; once in 1903, again in 1965 after Hurricane Betsy, and finally in 2008 and 2009 after Hurricane Katrina. Still, many of the beautiful original stained-glass windows remain. The pulpit and the pews are original as well.

Noted for its Gothic-style architecture, St. James A.M.E. has been led by more than 47 pastors. Many of these shepherds have gone on to lead other A.M.E. churches.

Other pastors of Historic St. James A.M.E. include Rev. John Miflin Brown, a well-educated northern minister who encountered much hostility because he allowed slaves to attend services. Despite being jailed five times during his five-year ministry, under his leadership, the church grew in membership and financial stability. Brown also helped to organize and build other A.M.E. churches in the city.

Rev. David Campbell, Jr., led the church for 15 years and is now a retired elder of the AME Church. Rev. Otto Duncan Jr.  led the ongoing restoration of the church after served on the staff of the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund. And in 2014, Rev. Carolyn Habersham became St. James A.M.E.’s first female pastor.  

AME Represents Family

Being a member of the AME denomination signifies inclusion in a nation-wide family of worshippers where long standing hymns like “We’ve Come This Far by Faith” being sung by the choir comforts members in the sanctuary. Although the order of service remains typically the same, new church members bring with them the spirit of the new millennium and have built excitement for St. James A.M.E.’s 175th anniversary celebration with events like Sweet Sunday, the Men’s Cook-off, a walk-a-thon in City Park, Chicken & Waffles Dinner and Family & Friends Day.

St. James A.M.E.’s pivotal role in the civil rights and human rights in New Orleans before, during and after Reconstruction is legendary:

• From 1858 to 1862, when the church was still known as St. James Chapel, the police shut the church down because its members advocated for the abolition of slavery. 

• During the Civil War, a company of Black soldiers was recruited from the church by the Union Army and they used the church as their headquarters;

• The Prince Hall Masons of Louisiana were organized at the church. 

• The initial organizational meetings of the YMCA for Black men and boys were held at Historic St. James A.M.E.; 

• The church was also a staging area for the Buffalo Soldiers and well as the Ninth Infantry Immune Regiment and Band who were on their way to the Cuba-Spanish American War in 1898;

• In 1903, the pastor and trustees petitioned the New Orleans City Council and Orleans Parish School Board to establish a new school for Black youth in the community, which later became the Bienville School. 

Many of Historic St. James A.M.E. members as well as residents of the neighborhood were displaced by Hurricane Katrina and did not return to the church. But those who were able to return have set the pace for an exciting future for the New Orleans church. 

Today, Historic St. James A.M.E. continues to provide hope and sustenance for those who need it. The church feeds the homeless and provides affordable housing to dozens of families who live in the apartments on North Roman, Iberville, and Bienville streets that are owned by the church.

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