Discovery adds intrigue, challenge to San Pedro Creek park project in downtown San Antonio

San Antonio Express News ; Scott Huddleston May 22, 2020 Updated: May 22, 2020 2:05 p.m.

A newly discovered building foundation with ties to San Antonio’s 19th century heritage could add luster — and possibly additional costs and delays — to a critical section of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park project now under construction.

Archaeologists working with the San Antonio River Authority are assessing the significance of a large patchwork of rectangular structural footings, including a mid-1800s soap factory site that became the original worship space of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church.

That AME church was one of Bexar County’s first black churches, founded shortly after the end of the Civil War and abolition of slavery. The church later moved to the West Side, where it’s still active.

“They are psychologically trying to move forward, and one of the first steps to moving forward is establishing your own church — something that did not happen when you were in slavery,” said Carey Latimore, a professor of African American history at Trinity University. “It’s a sign of independence.”

Archaeologists discovered the stone-and-mortar foundation on the east bank of the creek across from the Alameda Theater in February during work on the massive county-funded project.

That three-block segment of the park project is rich in San Antonio history.

In addition to the foundation, a worn cornerstone inscribed with the words “AME Church” was uncovered during digging. Excavations at the site also have uncovered animal bones, ceramic pieces and other Spanish colonial-era artifacts; remnants of an ice-making plant; and components of a coal-powered gas plant.

“It’s multiple entities represented in a small space over 300 years of history,” said SARA Senior Engineer Kerry Averyt during a site visit Thursday.

Officials have warned that a mandate from local, state and federal authorities to preserve the history of the site could affect completing this part of the project, budgeted at $74.7 million and set for a June 2021 grand opening.

But Averyt said they’re committed to protecting the heritage.

“This is actually exciting. It impacts construction, and that’s OK. It’s the Culture Park, and we want to represent that culture,” Averyt said.

The engineer had told the San Pedro Creek Citizens Advisory Committee on March 12, just before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted cancellations of meetings and public events, that a proposed redesign could delay completion by six to nine months.

Since the segment is partly funded with federal dollars, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be involved in decisions on how the site could be interpreted under government historic preservation guidelines.

About $14 million in federal money reimbursed to the county for the 2008-2013 Mission Reach project of the San Antonio River was applied to the three-block segment, in the most historic section of downtown San Antonio.

Committee Chairman Jerry Geyer said the discovery presents new challenges, but enhances the project’s connection to San Antonio’s historic fabric, as proven through archaeological evidence.

“I’m glad that we’re learning about these stories that are not just folklore, but things that we now know actually happened right there on the creek,” Geyer said.

Trinity’s Latimore is a member of the project’s interpretive plan committee. He said the unearthed cornerstone and foundation are symbolic of San Antonio’s black community roots, and a church that became an emotional lifeline for former enslaved people, as well as an outlet for education and civic and political engagement.

It’s possible that some who helped build the soap factory and worked there as slaves worshiped there later, struggling to adjust to a new life as free people, he said.

It was a “sign of moving forward and creating a community,” Latimore said.

Pastor Al Smith, who has been the leader for the past four years at St. James, now located at 402 N. Richter St., said he views the church’s long history and humble beginnings as a “springboard for the future.”

Younger members who run the church Facebook page have taken an interest in the old stories and photographs.

“Unfortunately, very little was kept. There are archives and so forth, but it’s been more through the word of mouth,” Smith said. “So to hear the story, and to hear about former members that helped build that church, is most encouraging.”

This historical photo shows construction of the current location of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church on the near West Side in the 1930s. The foundation and cornerstone of the church’s original circa-1868 chapel by San Pedro Creek was recently discovered.

Madison Mitchell, associate minister at St. James and longtime parishioner, said some worshipers, including his wife, have family ties dating to the church’s beginnings on the creek.

He contemplated what it might have been like for the founders.

“I only know they were some faithful folks. Man, it had to have been a time – a hard time. But we survived,” said Mitchell, 75.

It’s not surprising that the park project has turned up relics and architectural features of the past. The section under construction from Houston to Nueva streets is in front of the city-owned Spanish Governor’s Palace, once part of an early 1700s presidio in the historic Plaza de Armas.

San Pedro is one of the most historic creeks in the nation, having provided fertile camping and hunting land for Native Americans and water for settlers to irrigate crops, as San Antonio de Béjar evolved as a frontier village. One of the key components of the culture park project is to celebrate that heritage.

The newly discovered foundation is tied to what some consider San Antonio’s first industry: soap production, which began around the mid-1800s. Soap-making improved sanitation in people’s lives, but also generated discharges of lye and other waste products into the creek. City sanitation inspectors would often visit soap factories on the creek in response to citizen complaints.

It’s not clear how one of those factories was replaced by St. James chapel. The church’s Facebook page says the ministry “started at the Old Soap Factory in 1868,” one year after the church was founded. The first local black congregation, St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church — now St. Paul’s United Methodist Church — was founded by former slaves in 1866.

Under current designs for San Pedro Creek Culture Park, this outdoor plaza just south of Houston Street, behind the Alameda Theater, will face the massive water wall feature that will be built to the right, where the columns are. The liquid showpiece will be 250 feet wide and 15 feet tall with an interactive sound-and-light public art installation. The microphone to activate the installation will be in the plaza area to the left. Photo: Scott Huddleston

Latimore said founders of St. James may have had stone masonry skills, and sought a lasting presence on the creek.

“This is not a congregation that has a lot of money. But they’re putting in something that they intend to be stable,” Latimore said.

One of the early St. James pastors, a former slave named Abraham Grant, came to Texas in 1878 and was elected bishop of the AME church 10 years later. He also was an educator and colleague of author and orator Booker T. Washington, a major figure in African American history.

After his death in 1911, Grant was buried in a cemetery on the city’s East Side, in a funeral attended by several hundred people, including leading black clergy members from across the nation, newspapers reported. SARA officials said archaeologists believe St. James’ founding members worshiped at the chapel for five to eight years, and likely had moved to another site by the time Grant arrived.

Plans for the area just south of Houston Street, to include an entertainment plaza and 250-foot-wide, 15-foot-tall waterfall feature, have always provided for some kind of interpretive homage to the church, including signage and text.

Averyt has told the advisory committee the area might have to be at least partly redesigned if the city’s Office of Historic Preservation, Texas Historical Commission and Corps of Engineers require the whole foundation, covering 2,390 square feet, to be preserved.

That would force the project team to ask county commissioners for more funding. He did not say how much more it might cost.

SARA, which is working with archaeological consultant Raba Kistner on the project, is “on board with doing everything that’s necessary to preserve the history and the culture of the block here,” while awaiting guidance from regulatory officials, Averyt told the creek advisory group.

A 2016 project document noted that the area alongside and south of Camaron Street included, by the late 1800s, the county jail, a livery stable, the city’s gas plant, a soap factory and “the second AME church in Texas.”

“We didn’t know exactly what would be discovered until we started digging,” said Carrie Brown, public art curator for the creek project

The chapel’s discovery highlights a tangible connection to African American history and culture that could be incorporated into murals, music, activities and education, she said.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to share more information through many different ways. For example, we could have performances; maybe a church choir sings here,” Brown said. “We could have storytelling hours where we’re sharing the history of these facilities.”

Shanon Shea Miller, director of the city’s preservation office, said the project team is preparing an archival report “to help determine whether the church foundation and surrounding site is historically significant, as required under federal law.” She said the issue would likely be considered by the Historic and Design Review Commission, whose meetings include an opportunity for citizens to speak.

“Potential treatment options will be directed by the USACE and THC, in consultation with the public, as well as project stakeholders,” Miller said. “OHP is part of this review process and we are working with SARA to identify appropriate options for interpretation on-site and possible incorporation of a portion of the foundation into the existing design.”

SARA General Manager Suzanne Scott said archaeological work is continuing at the site in support of a plan to be reviewed by “project partners and key stakeholders.”

“The River Authority is working with OHP, the project’s archaeological consultants and the design team to document the findings at the site and to ensure that the history is appropriately documented and incorporated in the project’s multi-layered interpretive plan,” Scott said.

Regardless of the impact on the project, Latimore believes the discovery has opened a pathway to be inspired by the resilience of the early St. James worshipers, at a time when many black churches, and almost all churches, are struggling as a result of COVID-19.

“It’s ironic that it’s stone, for all the spiritual meanings of stone and rock,” Latimore said. “This is a big deal.”