Birmingham’s St. Paul United Methodist Church receives $500,000 grant from National Park Service

By Shauna Stuart 

Rev. Richard Stryker III and members of the congregation of St. Paul United Methodist Church pose for a photo with U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell. On October 24, 2022, Sewell presented St. Paul UMC with a $500,000 check for historic preservation. (Shauna Stuart)

In May, the National Park Service announced St. Paul United Methodist Church would receive a grant for preservation, restoration, and repair. This week, the historic church was formally presented with its check.

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell paid a special visit to the Birmingham church to present a $500,000 check to Rev. Richard Lane Stryker III and members of the St. Paul United Methodist congregation.

The grant is part of the National Park Service’s $3.6 million dollar initiative to preserve African American historic and civil rights sites in Alabama. The money comes from the agency’s African American Civil Rights Grant Program and is funded by the Historic Preservation Fund. More than 10 organizations in Alabama received grants from the NPS program to preserve historic landmarks.

“As a member of Alabama’s seventh congressional district, where so many fought, died, and bled for the equal rights of all Americans to vote and to live in this great nation, I take very seriously my role as protector of that rich legacy,” Sewell said during the presentation press conference. “As a daughter of Selma, such a role is very personal to me. St. Paul United Methodist Church is one of the oldest Black churches in the region. If these walls could talk, they would tell a story of the Birmingham campaign and the mass meetings that were held here to train nonviolent protesters and organizers for the integration of the Birmingham bus system.”

Founded in 1869, St. Paul United Methodist Church is one of the oldest African American churches in Birmingham. In 1956, the church served as a meeting site to integrate Birmingham buses. Seven years later, the church hosted training sessions in nonviolent civil disobedience, including classes for the young protestors who demonstrated in the 1963 Children’s Crusade. The Palm Sunday March in the spring of 1963 also departed from St. Paul, leading more than 500 protesters to the steps of Birmingham’s City Hall. In 1964, Dr. Rev. Joseph Lowery, the noted civil rights leader and cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, returned to Alabama from a tenure in Nashville to lead the congregation of St. Paul UMC until 1968.

A marker in front of St. Paul United Methodist Church
A marker in front of St. Paul United Methodist Church tells some of the history of the church’s role in the civil rights movement. (Shauna Stuart)

In 2017, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation designating part of Birmingham’s civil rights district as a national monument. The declaration made a portion of the district, which includes St. Paul United Methodist Church, part of the National Park Service.

“We often say that [in ]Alabama’s seventh congressional district, we’re simply custodians of America’s history,” said Sewell. “As long as I have breath in my body, I will continue to fight for funding for historic preservation for civil rights sites such as this.”

For the press conference, Sewell’s team displayed a board illustrating the organizations around the state that received the $3.6 million in NPS grant money for the 2022 fiscal year. Motioning to the board, Sewell mentioned that several recipients on the list were in second or third rounds of funding and encouraged St. Paul to apply to the grant program again in 2023.

Rep. Terri Sewell and Rev. Richard Stryker III
(From left) Rep. Terri Sewell and Rev. Richard Stryker III speak during a press conference at St. Paul United Methodist Church on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022 (Shauna Stuart)

“The maximum you can get for the National Park Service African American Historic Preservation grant is $500,000. So the fact that you got the maximum this time just goes to the amazing support and partnership and the amazing need for St. Paul to get historic preservation,” said Sewell.

Stryker was jovial as he thanked Sewell for her determination and commitment to the community. The minister says the church will use the funds to repair its foundation and interior issues.

NPS St. Paul United Methodist Church
A sign on a gate outside of St. Paul United Methodist Church notes the repairs happening at the historic house of worship. (Shauna Stuart)

When asked about the significance of the grant, Stryker stressed the importance of not only structural repairs, but also the need for cultural preservation of the historic meeting place for future generations.

“In order for them to be able to see that, we have to preserve it. And then they’ll be able to come and sit and meditate and also hopefully get an inspiration to work for social justice in the future,” Stryker said. “And so we want to have a space that will serve as inspiration to them to do maybe even greater work.

St. Paul United Methodist offers historic tours of its sanctuary. Stryker said he also hopes the funds will help the church develop more innovative ways to teach its rich history.

“We have to preserve and also present in a way that’s helpful for a new generation to want to hear the story. And so presentation is also an important piece for us. We’ll also be able to tell and retell those stories,” Stryker said. “So, that funding will be used to [help] us make sure that the space is here and with other funding, [we’ll] be able to do some inside tourism work for presentation purposes.”

The National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Fund also has a special initiative geared to preserving civil rights sites on the campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. This year, the program granted $2.5 million to five HBCUs in Alabama. In July, Sewell’s office announced Alabama State University, Alabama A&M University, Miles College, Selma University and Stillman College would each receive $500,000 to assist with restoring historic campus buildings. Sewell presented Miles College with its funding check during its homecoming last week. On Wednesday, Sewell presented Alabama State University and Alabama A&M University with their checks as part of a series of events celebrating the 81st annual Magic City Classic.