St. James United Methodist Church, originally a Methodist Episcopal church, has existed almost as long as the city of Waco itself. Founded in 1874 by Anderson Brack, a formerly enslaved man, the congregation started with roughly fifty-three members. On the banks of the Brazos River, they worshipped, communed together, and worked to establish a permanent brick-and-mortar building that would serve as a central location for their Christian community. Along with the church, St. James also established a school that provided education to Black children in the Waco area. As they sought to secure a steady meeting place, though, they faced difficulty and discrimination.
Built in 1889, their original building at Second and Ross Streets was the first brick church for African Americans in Waco. St. James, established after Mt. Zion, was the second African American church in the city. After the city of Waco condemned their new building, they built a larger tabernacle in 1909 in the same location. They worshipped there until 1922. That year, the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad Company purchased the property, citing eminent domain, and the St. James congregation built once more. This time, on Second and Clay Avenue.
Under the leadership of Pastor C. S. Williams, the congregation broke ground on the church in March 1924. Utilizing bricks from their previous tabernacles inside the new structure, St. James memorialized and honored the history of their church. Architect Carleton Adams, who garnered statewide and national attention for his home and building designs in San Antonio, developed plans for the Tudor Gothic-style structure. While members were eager to meet in the new location, the congregation experienced financial strain in the years to come after accumulating $85,000 in debt to construct the building, which took thirty-two years to repay.
At Second and Clay, St. James committed themselves to racial justice initiatives in the community as well as interracial partnerships. During the Great Depression, they offered a daily soup kitchen to Wacoans in need. They also held meetings for the “Waco Forward” movement of the 1920s that launched as a local effort to assist those struggling amid economic stagnation. Waco Forward hoped to improve Waco’s economy and usher in an era of progress and stability. St. James also hosted other interracial events, including concerts and women’s groups, as well as a “Race Relations Sunday” service in February 1945. There, they called for attendees to “build a nation and a world where there shall be no discrimination on the basis of color, creed, or national origin.”
After its formation in 1936, the McLennan County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) met multiple times at St. James. At an “NAACP Sunday” event in 1951, which occurred during the civil rights movement, the McLennan County chapter formed a plan that addressed local and national needs. They also hosted another notable meeting in 1955, where the organization expressed their support of the “Free by ‘63” campaign. This campaign effort raised funds for numerous legal cases taking place during the movement. Those a part of the NAACP and the church sought to address and end discrimination in Texas and across the country.
Important to Waco and St. James, multiple prominent members worked within and outside of the church. Robert L. Smith, one of the first Black Americans elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1894, attended St. James. Prior to his arrival in Waco, Smith established the Farmers’ Improvement Society, which aided farmers who had fallen into extensive debt. Inescapable debt particularly impacted previously enslaved people who turned to sharecropping and tenant farming after emancipation. As Smith worked for these communities in Waco, he also served as a steward and legal adviser for the church. J. J. Flewellen and Professor J. S. Henry, principals at Carver High and Kirk Elementary, also attended St. James. Both schools offered educational opportunities to Black students in Waco. Lonnie Morris Belle Hodges, the church’s historian, strove to bring attention to the history of St. James. As the only living descendent of St. James’s charter members with continuing membership, Hodges worked to attain recognition for the history of the congregation and building. In 1986, the building received a Recorded Texas Historical Marker due to her efforts.
The congregation continued to grow over the years, exceeding over six hundred members during their strongest periods. Yet, by 2015, St. James had dwindled once more to fewer than sixty congregants. Deciding to focus more on fellowship and community rather than upkeep of an aging structure, they placed the historic building on the market. The church received a City of Waco Historic Landmark in 2017 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on September 12, 2019. St. James remains the only religious structure on the National Register of Historic Places in Waco. The building, purchased by local Wacoans Amy and Lane Murphy, remains a prominent historical landmark for the city. As they transition the church into a restaurant and event space, they plan to preserve the history of the congregation and the building. Members of St. James now meet in another location in Waco, joining with Wesley United Methodist Church each Sunday. There, they continue to commune and worship together. Through the remaining congregation and renovation efforts at Second and Clay, the long history of St. James United Methodist Church persists in Waco.