Historic Church on Beale Gets Preservation Funding from County
The Shelby County government will spend $150,000 to help restore and preserve Beale Street Baptist Church, heralded as the first in Memphis built by formerly enslaved people.
The Downtown house of worship began construction in 1869, just years after the end of the Civil War.
Rev. LaSimba Gray, an associate minister for development with the church, says in the decades following its establishment the landmark was an epicenter for African American life in the Mid-South and a place where people could practice their faith with dignity.
“You couldn’t get everybody in at one time,” he says. “They had night services and day services, and the pastor would beg folk if you came this morning don’t come back tonight – give other people a chance.”
The prominent early civil rights journalist Ida B. Wells also used the church as a base for her newspaper in the late 1800s. She chronicled lynchings and racial injustices in the South.
Over the years, however, the church fell into disrepair. But its spirit endured, Gray says, surviving efforts to tear it down as part of urban renewal in the 1960s. Today, about 100 people are part of the congregation.
“People come everyday to see this building, and you almost have to drop your head when they say, 'What happened?" Gray says. "Well, we neglected it, and that neglect ends today.”
The Shelby County Commission’s preservation grant will be used to replace the roof and repair structural deterioration.
“It sends a signal that this is a place of importance, and that we’re not going to walk away from it,” Gray says.
More funding, he adds, will eventually be needed to fully restore the property.