This Abandoned Texas Church Once Destroyed By The Klan Is In A Contest For Revitalization Money

The San Marcos Baptist church was first burned down by the KKK. Now community members are trying to save its history from being erased by gentrification.

By Jill AmentOctober 16, 2018 11:05 am,

The city of San Marcos has been one of the country’s fastest-growing in the past several years. As that growth continues, a group of community members are making an effort to preserve the city’s historically black neighborhood from over-development and gentrification. One effort includes trying to save a building that used to house the town’s first African American church.

The Old First Baptist Church building was recently chosen alongside 20 historical structures across the country to compete for $150 thousand each through National Geographic’s Vote Your Main Street. The top 10 buildings with the most online votes will be awarded those funds.

When Georgia Cheatham walks into the Old First Baptist Church building in San Marcos, she’s flooded with memories.

“God, it’s been so long since I’ve been in here. I can’t even believe it,” Cheatham says. “It was a large congregation and a lot of things happened in this church. We would have big gatherings here. The congregation was just… all one.”

Cheatham was born in San Marcos in 1945. She grew up in the city’s historically black Dunbar neighborhood.

“Everyone that grew up here knew each other,” Cheatham says. “Everybody raised each other’s children. If you did something, by the time you got home, your parents already knew about it. So, we were very well connected here.”

She says the community center of the Dunbar neighborhood used to be the Old First Baptist Church.

“Everything was held there: weddings, funerals,” Cheatham says. “Graduation was held there from the San Marcos Colored School.”

The church wasn’t just a gathering place for the neighborhood and surrounding congregations. It also stood as a reminder of the discrimination black people in San Marcos faced during the 19th and 20th centuries. The very first building the congregation worshipped in was burned down by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1870s. It took 30 years to rebuild what is currently the Old First Baptist Church building. Cheatham says, the church thrived there for decades.

Photo courtesy The Calaboose African-American Museum.

The Historic First Baptist Church in its prime.

But today, the Old First Baptist Church building sits shuttered and vacant on a street corner in Cheatham’s old neighborhood. Years of neglect have left the building in serious disrepair.

“We always wanted to refurbish it and use it as a community center, but we couldn’t ever get the backing or the money to do that,” Cheatham says.

Local historians say as the congregation started to decline in the late 1980s, church leaders eventually sought out a smaller and more affordable venue. In 1986, the structure of the Old First Baptist Church was abandoned. Except for a handful of people who have been working to preserve the Dunbar neighborhood, the history of the building became a mystery to a lot of people in San Marcos.

We didn’t know that that building has way more significance than that story of this is the former building of this church,” San Marcos real estate broker Kurt Waldhauser says.

Waldhauser and his wife bought the old church building last year. They weren’t sure what to do with the building until a city council member told them about its history, and attempts within in the community to preserve the building.

“He told me the original building was burned by the KKK,” Waldhauser says. “There has been interest in restoring this building to honor the community, honor the history, for a long period of time, and it hasn’t happened.”

Waldhauser says that was a turning point, and it’s now become the couple’s mission to save the building. They’ve teamed up with San Marcos’ African American Museum, The Calaboose, located across the street from the old church. It used to be the jail that housed black prisoners in San Marcos. The Calaboose has been working for several years to preserve the Dunbar neighborhood in the rapidly-growing city.

“We have been inundated by developers in San Marcos. We are trying to retain the community personality and not, become an overdeveloped neighborhood,” The Calaboose Community Liaison Linda Kelsey Jones says.

Ramika Adams is a member of The Calaboose. She says fully restoring the church would be it the “crown jewel” of the group’s efforts to preserve the Dunbar Neighborhood. They want to turn the church back into the community center it once was.

“I’ve heard the stories of the family type meetings they would have here around dinner and the wedding venues and the graduations. I would love to see that happen,” Adams says.

There are talks of making the main floor a meeting and event space. Waldhauser says he would like to turn the bottom floor into a small business development center. He wants to partner with Texas State University to train entrepreneurs focused on addressing the minority wealth gap.

To accomplish their vision, the Waldhauser’s and The Calaboose are working on sealing grant funds. It could take several years and up to a million dollars to restore the building. But the group is determined.

Ramika Adams with The Calaboose says she can’t help but feel like it’s their purpose to bring this building back to life.

“And for me, if I go home tomorrow, wherever home is, whether it’s with the Lord or back home in New Orleans, where I’m from, either way it goes, I feel like we’ve fulfilled our purpose here,” Adams says. “You know, we’ve all been called for such a time as this and this is what our purpose is. Coming together under this building and getting this done.”

For Georgia Cheatham, the building’s revival would be a dream come true.

“It would be time to shout Glory Hallelujah,” Cheatham says. “It’s something I’ve looked forward to for so many years. And to have been on the sideline and see it kind of go down, and now it’s rising up again. I am so thankful.”


Music provided by:
Adam Davis and Austin’s St. James Missionary Baptist Church
Rev. Wayne Thompson and Austin COGIC Mass Choir