Brown Chapel AME is falling down. Or it could have. Maybe should have. The iconic 114-year-old Selma church, where voting rights organizers gathered on that Sunday in March 1965 before being bloodied by Alabama state troopers as they peacefully tried to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge, should have fallen as did nearby Green Street Baptist, where the roof caved just after a service ended in 2016.
Brown Chapel AME might have endured the same. Were it not for the storm. Storms, really.
A $1.3 million federal grant was obtained last year to “make it pretty,” Juanda Maxwell told me earlier this week as we stood on the weary church’s outside steps. She chairs the Historic Brown Chapel AME Church Preservation Society, a 501c 3 formed in 2009 to help an aging, dwindling congregation care for its massive home.
Read more on Brown Chapel A.M.E:
Brown Chapel AME in Selma starts $1.3 million renovation
John Lewis takes final ride across Selma bridge
Nancy Garder Sewell, mother of U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, dies at 81
The hope was to replace the majestic (but leaking) cupolas on the twin Romanesque Revival towers, seal some cracks, remove molding from walls and beneath the three balcony’s been-there-since-day-one seats, reinforce stairways and other needs. Yet not long after the project began, as walls were stripped and wood removed, the storm arrived.
“It was like someone turned on a waterfall,” said Tonya Brewer, project manager, and conservator for The Lathan Company, the restoration firm owned by Jerry and former Alabama Republican party chair Terry Lathan, which won the bid to handle the effort.
The torrent required the reallocation of dollars to ensure the church was watertight and exposed far more damage than was known: beams weakened by termite infestation, years of water damage, and time.
So much so that the church on Wednesday was named the most endangered historic site in the nation by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Washington DC-based nonprofit that tracks and seeks to preserve sites that are threatened with extinction.
“Almost all of the beams and the structure in the South and North towers and the lintels along the walls along the base at the bottom of the flooring were eaten up and damaged,” said Maxwell, a long-time church member, and stewardess. “Water was coming from the roof, through the cupolas, and through the brick. It was just a perfect storm.”
A storm that proved to be a blessing because while the church stopped having services in the building in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, two significant events were subsequently held inside Brown Chapel AME. In July 2020, the church was packed for a memorial service for Congressman John L. Lewis, who led marchers across the bridge—an act that help lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Last June, the church was filled again to celebrate the homegoing of Nancy Sewell, mother of Cong. Terri Sewell, a Selma native.
“Absolutely, it was a blessing,” said Maxwell. “It’s just awful. It really was ready to come down like Green Street did.”
“I can’t tell you [falling] was imminent, like it was gonna happen in a matter of days or weeks,” says Jerry Lathan. “But it was definitely among the worst problems we’ve ever uncovered in terms of the threat to the structure itself. The idea that they loaded those balconies, and the church was full is just terrifying.
I’ve seen worse, but not in an occupied building. It simply couldn’t be occupied anymore. It could very well have collapsed at any point along the way.”
“The church is only standing by the grace of God,” said construction project manager Tonya Brewer.
At least $5 million more is now needed to complete the repairs. Maxwell says about a million has been committed thus far, including $500,000 from the National Park Service and another $150,000 from the National Trust. She hopes to be able to raise another million in 2022 and is seeking support from the private sector.
Lathan says the goal is to create a museum-quality restoration, a notation designated for only historically significant structures. “There was an iconic figure or event that happened there,” Lathan said. “The objective is to have it look like it did when that history happened.”
For instance, the wood accents on the now all-white ceiling were originally painted gold. The restoration will replicate that look. “We want the interior of the church to look like it did so if John Lewis or Dr. [Martin Luther] King walked in the door they would recognize everything as it looked when they left or the marches. That’s our goal, to put it back precisely in the colors, fabrics, and textures that were there at that point in time.”
Brewer, who lives in Mobile but became engaged in Selma, says the restorers are committed to using every portion of the original church that is salvageable. “It will look like it did in 1965 when I’m finished,” she said.
Among other places on the endangered list:
— Camp Naco, a base for Black Buffalo Soldiers in Naco, Arizona
— Picture Cave in Warrenton, Missouri
— Brooks Park Art and Nature Center in East Hampton, New York
— Palmer Memorial Institute in Greensboro, North Carolina
— Chicano/a Murals in Colorado
— The Deborah Chapel, a Jewish mortuary n Hartford, Connecticut.
— Francisco Sanchez Elementary School in Umatac, Guam.
— Minidoka National Historic Site in Jerome, Idaho.
— Olivewood Cemetery, an African American burial ground in Houston, Texas
— Jamestown, where enslaved Africans first arrived in America
“We’re turning over every rock and looking for ways to help raise funds,” says Lathan, including paying for a professional fundraiser. “It can be fixed, It’s just money and time. We will fix it.”