The Church Blinded by Color – Still Coming into View

The First African American Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Texas

“Racism perpetuates a basic untruth which claims the superiority of one group of people over others because of the color of their skin, their cultural history, their tribal affiliation, or their ethnic identity. This lie distorts the biblical understanding of God’s action in creation, wherein all human beings are made “in the image of God.” [2] It blasphemes the ministry of Christ who died for all people, “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” [3] It divides people from one another and gives false permission for oppression and exploitation.” — From House of Bishops Pastoral Letter on Sin of Racism, March 1994

In 1883, during the Sewanee Conference, southern bishops had met to devise a proposal to be voted upon by General Convention that would formally segregate Black and White Episcopalians.  While the proposal failed to pass, southern dioceses, in retaliation, set up “colored convocations” as parallel and subordinate to diocesan conventions. In the wake of these actions and in the midst of ongoing dissension among southern Episcopalians about the intellectual and moral capacity of Blacks to participate in the governance of the church and their own selves, the first congregation for African Americans in the Diocese of Texas began. Established in 1884, St. Augustine of Hippo Episcopal Church, originally St. Augustine’s, became the first African American church in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.

As Galveston grew in the second half of the 19th century, Anglican seafarers from the British West Indies became frequent visitors. Seeking to have communion for themselves and their families, 50 of these Black Anglican seamen called upon the Rev. Charles M. Parkman, then the Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Galveston to allow them to worship there. But given the prejudices of the day and the sailors’ dark complexions, they were “invited” to attend services on Wednesdays and Fridays only. Desiring to worship on Sunday, the seafarers reached out to the Bishop of Texas, Alexander Gregg who agreed to provide them a church. The church was given the name, St. Augustine of Hippo, after the 4th century bishop and theologian from Northern Africa. In its early years, St. Augustine was known as the “Islanders’ Church.”

In the summer of 1885, Bishop Gregg brought the Rev. Dr. William Floyd, a Black physician and clergyman from Louisville, Kentucky, to Galveston to be the missionary resident priest. Charged with organizing a mission on the island for people of color, Floyd traveled tirelessly around the diocese and the country preaching and seeking funds for a permanent chapel; however, he did not live to see the chapel become a reality. He died during the epidemic of yellow fever in August 1887, having contracted the disease while helping to care for victims of the epidemic.

On September 16, 1888, the Rev. Thomas White Cain of Richmond, Virginia, arrived in Galveston as a missionary priest. Cain, born a slave in Petersburg, Virginia, was made deacon and priest by the Bishop of Virginia and served as priest in charge of St. Philip’s Church for colored people in Richmond, Virginia until he was sent to the Diocese of Texas in 1888 to be the second vicar of this newly organized mission. Cain was a graduate of the very first class of the Bishop Payne Divinity School, founded in Petersburg, Virginia in 1878 to train African-Americans for ministry in the Episcopal Church. The school continued to operate until 1951.

Under Cain’s leadership, the congregation grew and made great progress.  By 1897, there were more than 180 active African-American communicants. They were eventually able to purchase the Scandinavian Methodist Church and property on the corner of 22nd and Broadway in the heart of Galveston at a cost of $6,500 cash. A church building was erected in 1889, and the first service was held there on Ash Wednesday of that year.

In addition to his efforts to build and maintain the mission assigned him, Fr. Cain also organized the first industrial school and was instrumental in rallying the support of the African American community to help with the outbreak of Yellow Fever that had plagued the Island.

On September 8, 1900, disaster struck. The devastating hurricane, which has become known as the 1900 Storm, washed away the church and the rectory. All records, confirmations and other official acts at the mission before the 1900 Storm were destroyed. The greater loss, though, was both Cain and his wife, who both perished in the storm. After the storm, surviving members of St. Augustine’s parish held their services in Eaton Memorial Chapel at Trinity Episcopal Church, Galveston.

Following Fr. Cain’s death, the congregation remained without a vicar until the arrival of the Rev. Walter Henry Marshall in 1901. Marshall, the former vicar of St. Phillip’s in San Antonio, inherited the daunting task of building a new church. Under his leadership, the current sanctuary was constructed on the former site. The first service in the new church was held there on Easter Day, 1902. By the end of 1902, the loan had been repaid in total with funds raised solely by the congregation and the vicar. Bishop George Kinsolving consecrated St. Augustine’s Mission on St. Thomas’ Day, December 21, 1902, as a memorial to the life and ministry of the Rev. Thomas White Cain.

In the years 1866-77 only twenty Blacks were ordained. Of those, only six advanced to the priesthood, and only two of these in were in southern dioceses. The greatest deterrent to the preparation of Black ministers came from a reluctance on the part of southern bishops and standing committees to ordain them. In too many instances, Southerners were unwilling to see former slaves truly as fellow citizens of God’s Kingdom or to recognize them as being capable of reading, comprehending and living out the Gospel without their direction or, albeit, interference. Yet, when given the opportunity and support, they proved themselves to be no less capable or deserving. And while we recognize there are untold stories and obstacles that have been overcome that we can’t begin to imagine, we can see through the examples of these servants, called to lead in the establishment and growth of St. Augustine through the most perilous of times and devastating of circumstances, that God’s providential hand was no less upon them and that they were in no ways any less equipped to answer the call.

(Sources: This Far by Faith: A History of the African American Presence in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, St. Augustine of Hippo’s historical account, and “The Black Experience within The Episcopal Church: A Chronological Study with Recommendations for Growth by Kathleen A. McAdams)


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