Historic Black Church Won Federal Funds for Restoration. Why Is It Sitting Empty?

Old First Baptist Church in San Marcos (Photo from Patrick Melon @melontao)

A year after the end of the Civil War, a congregation of former slaves south of Austin built a church where they could praise the God who had delivered them from bondage. Seven years later, a mob of white hooded men firebombed that church, the flames consuming everything but the hardwood pulpit.

But like that obstinate lectern, the First Baptist congregation survived, eventually building a new, much larger church in 1908 in the historically African American community of Dunbar, adjacent to San Marcos’ historic downtown district.

The faithful flock thrived at that location for almost eight decades, the large Victorian style building doubling as a central hub for a vibrant community, where people held graduations, musicals, and revivals, all the while helping those in need. It was once the meeting place of the NAACP and served integrated Sunday luncheons in the midst of Jim Crow Texas for $1.50 a plate.

Since then, the congregation has moved. Now the Old First Baptist Church building could be restored to serve as a museum or community center, but grant money to fund the necessary renovations is held up in bureaucratic limbo.

The building has been abandoned since 1986, after the city of San Marcos denied the congregation a permit for the old edifice’s much-needed restoration. They were once again forced to pull up stakes and move to another location, though deacons hoped to one day shepherd the flock back to that historic location. In 2016, such hope no longer tenable, they put the dilapidated building up for sale, advertising it as a teardown.

A few months later a civic-minded real estate developer and Texas State graduate, Kurt Waldhauser got the go-ahead from his wife, Katherine, to purchase the building with the stipulation the couple do anything they could to save it.

Soon after the sale, the Waldhausers were approached by San Marcos Main Street – the city program that “focuses on maintaining the unique and historic nature of of San Marcos” – to apply for a $150,000 grant from the National Trust’s Partners in Preservation program to help “increase public awareness of historic places.” After a massive local and worldwide application effort, the old church got approved for the funds.

But the property being owned by a private entity, Waldhauser LLC, was a sticking point, as the funds for its restoration could only flow through a nonprofit. Waldhauser had a nonprofit to fill that role, but the lines of communication between Waldhauser and the proposed nonprofit got crossed and ultimately severed, putting the whole process, including the grant and the site’s status as a National Historic Site, in a bureaucratic mire.

When the Chronicle asked Kevin Washington – grandson of Senior Pastor Alphonso Washington during the congregants’ 1986 exodus – for his take on what he sees as part of his family’s significant legacy to the African American community of Central Texas, he said, “I can appreciate that [Waldhauser] has elected to preserve the building, understanding that it has a significant story in the larger black narrative of the Civil Rights Era.” And considering what he sees as the building’s outsized significance – both physically as the largest of Dunbar’s many black churches, but more importantly as a social anchor of the neighborhood and beyond – he laments, “It greatly confounds me that this much time and effort has been spent with such little result toward preserving that posterity.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by the church’s present senior pastor, Colby Cotton, who helped facilitate the reluctant transfer of the deed. “If we had the means, I’m pretty sure we would [buy it back], because there are so many grants out there. And we qualify as a nonprofit and as a church and could get the funds to help get that building back to its original condition.”

The Chronicle asked the city of San Marcos whether the grant funds are still available should Waldhauser get a new nonprofit partner. “The city recognizes the importance of historic buildings in our downtown area and their contribution to our community’s heritage,” a city spokesperson said. “We will continue to work collaboratively and encourage open dialogue with all stakeholders regarding any future restoration.” The National Trust for Historic Preservation had not responded to our questions at the time of publication.

The Waldhausers have done enough work to keep the building compliant with city codes, and Waldhauser says he still sees a financially viable future for the building. He envisions a national museum for Black music that ties the building to the area’s rich heritage in the artform. He is presently combing various grant applications so that he might finally facilitate a partnered resolution that best serves all the vested parties, especially the community from which the building and its rich, turbulent history were born.

The Rev. Cotton sees it functioning well as a much-needed community resource center for afterschool programs, food pantries, and the like. As the youngest senior pastor (born in 1989) in First Baptist’s history, Cotton said “I never had church in that building, but I’ve been inside, and the history, when you walk in, you can just feel.”

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.