Monday, February 19, 2018

Legacy & worship: St. Mark CME church celebrates 150 years

By Jimmy Daniell Isaac
Aug. 25, 2017 at 5:29 p.m.

St. Mark CME Church Tuesday, August 22, 2017. (Les Hassell/News-Journal Photo)

A smile crackled across 94-year-old Evelyn Garrett Williams' face when her baby daughter asked to hear why some people referred to St. Mark Christian Methodist Episcopal Church as the silk-stocking church.

"You can tell him that," Williams told daughter Tracey Adkins, but she then continued.

"'Silk stocking' means, you know, people that wore silk stockings were big people," she said. "They had money. They could buy those silk stockings, and that's why we were called the 'silk stocking church,' because we had those kind of people in the church, and that's the kind of people that ran St. Mark — people that had something, people that were somebody, and a lot of them are gone now."

It wasn't always that way for members of St. Mark C.M.E. Church. Their history predates Gregg County and Longview, growing from the city's heart. Because of that and its list of educators, business and civic people whose names moniker several local landmarks, St. Mark members lay claim to playing as great a role in Longview's evolution as any congregation or agency.

On Sunday, the church celebrates its 150th anniversary during a 4 p.m. worship service at 1100 Sapphire St. The public is invited.

"I can't tell you that much about the history because I wasn't here," Williams said, "but I do know that we have a good history just by listening to my parents and other older people talking that it is an older church."

Those history lessons led Williams to become the church's longtime historian, and her work led to a marker from the state historical commission in 1986 — after she corrected the church.

"That information came about because she looked it up. We were celebrating the wrong years," Adkins said. "This was about 20-plus years ago. She found out we were older than we thought… So, she was our church historian. She got the church's history and got the historical marker. She did all of that."

Williams' granddaughter, Longview City Councilwoman Kasha Williams, provided the News-Journal with the corrected version this week that was written and signed by the historian herself.

According to Evelyn Williams' records, St. Mark organized in 1867 when former slaves built a brush arbor to conduct religious services on a site now known as Magrill Plaza, now regarded as a park and transfer point for Longview Transit public bus service. The plaza is named for John Magrill, a member of the white Methodist church congregation, who, on Aug. 25, 1871, deeded land to freedmen who worshipped there. At that time, the area was known as the Meeting Place and The Grove.

"Rev. R.A. Hagler ministered to the spiritual needs in 1873, but the first record of a pastoral assignment to St. Mark is not until 1874, because slaves nor freedmen of color were allowed to serve as ministers from 1835 to the close of the war; and the education of slaves was prohibited by the law," according to the records. "One year later, Rev. Hagler officially organized this group and presented to the Sherman Annual Conference in January 1874 for pastoral supply. Bishop Lane assigned M.F. Jamison to the Marshall and Longview stations in 1874."

A two-story box house served as St. Mark's first building until it was torn down in 1893 and replaced with an erected frame building. The first church parsonage opened in 1916 but later burned. It was repaired in 1918, but a second parsonage was built in 1945. A year later, the church was again repaired with an added fellowship hall, and it underwent more repairs in 1957. At that time, St. Mark's was located on East Marshall Avenue near the present location of the auto body shop, McDaniel's Quality Body Works, Adkins said.

Knowing the church's history has been not only important for members to impart to young members but has guided them to remain involvined in their community, they say.

Its members have included two past bishops of the Christian Methodist Episcopal faith. The Rev. O.T. Womack was St. Mark's third pastor and the one of the founders of Texas College, and his wife, Mary C. Womack was the church's first organist.

In the days of segregated schools, Mary C. Womack's legacy in education resulted in the naming of Longview's high school for black students in her honor. Other schools named for St. Mark members are Maggie B. Hudson Elementary, J.L. Everhart Elementary and Janie Daniels Elementary which has now become the Gregg County Health Department and Extension Office across Marshall Avenue from the former St. Mark's site.

A city park was named for Lloyd H. Walker, while Sam Broughton Recreation Center remains a prominent South Longview landmark and meeting place. Walker and Broughton were members, along with the late Sidney Bell Willis, who served three terms on the Longview City Council. Longview Transit Center is named for Willis.

Willis' sister, Audrey Carter, is 72 years old and among four members of what she called "the third generation that are still worshipping with us."

"It teaches you to be reverent of those who have struggled in the past to get the things that this world now demands and know the mean of which to do it, and that is patience, hard work and a determination that through God's help, all things are possible," Carter said. "We just have to believe and see things through."

In 1972 when Adkins was about 10, she broke ground at St. Mark's present site, she said.

"Mr. Boyce Jones, one of our educators — he's retired now — he helped me hold the shovel," Adkins remembers. "My mama put me in front of her, and he helped me hold the shovel to dig."

Kasha Williams was a baby when her aunt pushed the shovel into the Sapphire Street ground, but she said she was exposed to the church's history by age seven.

"In fact, I don't recollect a time I didn't know the history of my church," the councilwoman said. "Resultantly, in the eighth grade, Tameka Everhart Floyd and myself created an award winning history project on our church that is a part of the permanent display at the Gregg County Historical Museum."

Sarah Wilborn was a lifelong CME member but first visited St. Mark when she moved to Texas in 1989. She has continued to worship there and serves as director of the church's Christian education board.

"I've been the director under the last three or four pastors," Wilborn said, remembering her first visit. "It had a historical marker, and the people just seemed to be proud of the church and interested in getting new members."

Wilborn also noticed a great many active and retired teachers sitting in St. Mark's pews, she said.

"What I am most impressed with is that persons who mostly formed the church were just a few years out of slavery," Wilborn said. "They had very few resources, their jobs were very limited, their income and everything was so limited, but yet they wanted to worship God in the way that they wanted to, and they wanted their own place of worship.

"It's amazing that they had the courage and the fortitude to go after that just a few years out of slavery."

St. Mark has remained prominent "to a certain degree, because kingdom building extends outside of the four walls of the physical church structure," Kasha Williams said. The church has been fortunate to have numerous doctors, educators, pastors and political activists who worked to build bridges to Christ and within the community for the greater good, she said.

"The expectation was modeled for me, a sixth generation member, by my family and my church family," Williams said.

St. Mark is more than a historic congregation even to its church historian.

"That's the only church I've known," Evelyn Williams said. "I was never afraid to come to church and worship. I never was. I think it's because the people did not stop working, that they loved the church and kept it going all of the time… Older people like my daddy and grandfather, they were really church people, so they kept that church going."



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