On January 16, 2023, as the nation commemorated the life and impact of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the National Trust for Historic Preservation‘s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund announced its first round of Preserving Black Churches grants to help restore 35 historic Black churches across the U.S.: a total investment of $4 million.
The Action Fund’s Preserving Black Churches program is a $20 million initiative funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. to help historic Black churches and congregations reimagine, redesign, and deploy historic preservation to protect the cultural assets and legacies they steward, tell their stories of resiliency and hope, and carry their missions into the future.
With more than $80 million in funding, the Action Fund is the largest U.S. resource dedicated to the preservation of African American historic places.
“Leaving an indelible imprint on our society, historic Black churches hold an enduring legacy of community, spirituality, and freedom that continues to span generations,” said Brent Leggs, executive director, African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and senior vice president, National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“The Action Fund created the Preserving Black Churches program to recognize and celebrate the Black church for its contributions on American life, culture, and history, while also investing in their physical permanence and financial sustainment into the future. We are honored to award our first round of grantees with the resources needed to ensure the Black church continues to stand in its fullest glory,” he added.
Since our nation was founded, the Black church has played a prominent role in advancing critical democratic and societal change. According to Pew Research Center, around three-quarters of Black adults say predominantly Black churches have helped advance the fight for racial equity.
“From one room praise houses to unprecedented metropolitan mega churches, Black churches since slavery times have been the heart and soul of the African American community,” said Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., professor, historian, filmmaker, and national advisory councilmember for the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.
“So, it is inspiring to see the Action Fund’s commitment to preserving their history and their physical structures. After all, these are our sacred sites, which our ancestors built from the ground up, and we must do everything we can to ensure their survival. Preserving these structures is a visible way of preserving a crucial chapter of Black History,” he continued.
Today Black churches are experiencing challenges like deferred maintenance, insufficient funds, and threats of demolition. With leadership support from Lilly Endowment Inc., Preserving Black Churches will advance strategies that model and strengthen stewardship and asset management, interpretation, and fundraising activities of historic Black churches across the country.
In addition to helping churches restore and preserve their historic buildings, the program is designed to help congregations revitalize by strengthening their capacities to serve the spiritual and social needs of their communities for years to come.
In late 2021, Lilly Endowment made a grant of $20 million to the National Trust for Historic Preservation to support the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund’s Preserving Black Churches program.
The first-round grantees include the following churches: First Bryan Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, considered to be one of the oldest African American Baptist churches in the U.S.; Ohio’s Cory United Methodist Church where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X spoke in 1963-1964; St. Paul Christian Methodist Episcopal church located on the historic HBCU campus of Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee; and Manzanola United Methodist Church in Colorado, built by 50 Black homesteaders in 1915, among others.
Here’s the full list of 2023 grantees and grant categories:
ENDOWMENT AND FINANCIAL SUSTAINABIILTY GRANTS
16th Street Baptist Church, Inc.
Internationally recognized for its role in advancing civil rights in the United States with buildings designed by African American architect Wallace Rayfield, the 16th Street Baptist Church has strategically planned for the restoration of the historic church and parsonage for several years now. This grant will establish a new endowment that supports the long-term maintenance and restoration of the 16th Street Baptist Church’s historic assets in the future.
First Immanuel Lutheran Church Chicago
In service to Chicago’s West Side for more than 160 years, First Immanuel Lutheran Church offers worship opportunities, pastoral care, and a base of operations for many community organizations. This grant will help First Immanuel Lutheran Church grow its funding existing endowment to maintain their physical spaces for future generations.
Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
New York, New York
With the congregation’s origins dating to 1774, Mother AME Zion Church—operating today in a building designed by African American architect George Washington Foster, Jr.—is a center of community activity in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. This grant will seed investment for a new endowment to help the church congregation set a more sustainable funding model for the future preservation of its landmark.
ORGANIZATIONAL CAPACITY BUILDING GRANTS
Cory United Methodist Church
Architecturally notable for its design, scale, and origin as a synagogue, Cory United Methodist Church is a powerhouse in Cleveland’s civil rights history, having hosted scholar Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, attorney Thurgood Marshall, and activists Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. It remains a neighborhood anchor for religious and community programs. This grant will help Cory United Methodist Church hire its first director of preservation to lead the building’s restoration efforts and continue its legacy as an active church and transformative community landmark.
Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception
Built by free Black and enslaved people, the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception is one of the only basilicas in the United States with a predominately Black congregation. This grant will help the Basilica congregation hire senior preservation staff to implement its preservation plan, which will help the church remain an active presence during a time of neighborhood change and racial displacement within the broader community.
CAPITAL PROJECT GRANTS
Leake Temple African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
For 50 years, Leake Temple AME Zion Church has provided invaluable resources and support to Anchorage’s Mountain View neighborhood, one of the most diverse in the United States. This grant will fund the church congregation’s work to replace the roof of its sanctuary, helping to continue their legacy of religion and community service.
Old Ship African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
Dating from 1852, Old Ship AME Zion Church is the oldest Black congregation in Montgomery. It has hosted luminaries such as Frederick Douglass and U.S. presidents and was instrumental to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The grant will be used to repair and restore the building exteriors and roof, helping this nationally significant site safely continue its operations and remain a center for religious, cultural, and educational life in its community.
Congregational Church of Christian Fellowship
Los Angeles, California
A community pillar for more than 80 years, the Congregational Church of Christian Fellowship stands out along the LA-10 Freeway thanks to its colorful steeple, now severely leaning. By enabling the tower’s repair, this grant will also help preserve the local landmark’s history of civil rights activism, religion, and faith.
Old Mount Carmel Baptist Church
(Pleasant Street Civil Rights and Cultural Arts Center)
The Old Mount Carmel Baptist Church stands at the heart of the Pleasant Street Historic District, the first neighborhood of African American homeowners established in Gainesville, Florida. The grant will combat water damage by replacing the building’s roof and protecting the building envelope, helping the institution continue its religious mission and serving a broader network of local nonprofit organizations in the historic space.
First Bryan Baptist Church
Considered one of the oldest African American Baptist churches in the United States, First Bryan Baptist Church has been in continuous service for 234 years. The grant will fund multiple restoration projects to include roofing, plaster, and stained-glass windows that will enable the building to witness another two centuries of American history.
Centerville Second Baptist Church
(Historic Preservation Corporation)
When the former congregation dissolved in 1992, a group of women and U.S. veterans banded together to save the deteriorating building where famous opera singer Simon Estes sang in the choir as a child. This grant will stabilize and rehabilitate the building to better preserve and interpret its layered history.
Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church
Originally built as a synagogue in 1899 by architect Dankmar Adler, Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church is notable both for its architectural history and its role in the creation of modern gospel music, establishing the careers of legendary singers such as Mahalia Jackson. The congregation will use the grant to accelerate the facade renovations and roof repair for its Classical Revival-style main building.
Burks Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church
Burks Chapel has a long history of opening its doors to all those in need, including creating the area’s first Black school in the late 1800s. This grant will fund critical repairs to the failing and fragile church steeples and towers, making the building a safer place to worship, while also preserving one of the city’s oldest religious sites.
Holy Aid and Comfort Spiritual Church
New Orleans, Louisiana
When Hurricane Ida displaced the Holy Aid and Comfort Spiritual Church in 2021, the congregation feared they would lose 140 years of Black history amid New Orleans’ gentrifying 7th Ward. Their church building is the historic Perseverance Hall where jazz has its roots in the city. The grant will help the church rebuild its structure and continue offering stability and support for its most vulnerable and dedicated community members.
Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church
(Foundation for Appalachian Ohio)
Built in 1849 with the help of recently freed enslaved people, the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church was the first Black Church not just in Ohio, but west of the Alleghenies/Appalachians. This grant will help to save the vacant National Historic Landmark from collapse, stabilize, and restore the only extant antebellum Black church in the state, and support its rebirth as a historic site and community center.
First African Baptist Church
Beaufort, South Carolina
Constructed by freedmen in 1865 with an active congregation since 1863 that included Civil War hero and Reconstruction Era Congressman Robert Smalls, First African Baptist Church is facing wood rot and termite damage to its original structure. The church will use the grant to repair and protect the girders, floor, shutters, and other fabric, ensuring the church’s use for worship and tourism as part of the Reconstruction Era National Historic Network.
Reedy Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church
As the first and oldest AME church in Texas, Reedy Chapel was one of the first places where General Order No. 3 was read, declaring the emancipation of enslaved persons in the state—an event now commemorated nationally as Juneteenth. The church will use the grant to restore its masonry, stucco, and stained-glass windows, improving its climate resilience and helping continue its traditions of gathering and celebrating for another 174 years.
Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Zion
Located in the heart of a historically Black neighborhood in Seattle, Ebenezer AME Zion—one of the few remaining buildings standing in the recently gentrified area—continues to act as a hub for its local Black community. The grant will enable critical safety repairs and improve accessibility so that all people will feel welcome and included at the church for years to come.
First Missionary Baptist Church
With deep roots in the Civil Rights Movement, First Missionary Baptist Church was a vital launch pad for political activism and organizing in Lowndes County and for its association to the original Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The church will use the grant to conduct major repairs to the historic building and retain its prominent place as a community anchor.
Manzanola United Methodist Church
In 1915, 50 Black homestead families arrived in Manzanola to form what would be only one of two Black rural agricultural settlements in Colorado—a legacy maintained today by local landmark Manzanola United Methodist Church. The church will use the grant to rehabilitate its exterior and reactivate its spaces for the local community.
St. Rita Catholic Church
As the mother church for Indianapolis’ Black Catholic community, St. Rita Catholic Church has been serving the city’s African American residents since 1919. The church will use its grant to fix the bell tower and repair the main structure’s masonry, helping keep the historic landmark open and inclusive to all.
Scotland African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
Scotland AME Zion Church has a rich history of advocacy and education in its community, delving into current issues such as affordable housing, public health, and climate change. As water infiltration has rendered the church unusable, this grant will fund critical restoration work to help the congregation re-occupy the building and continue as a symbol of the Black community’s resilience.
Wesley Temple African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
Wesley Temple AME Zion Church, Akron’s oldest Black congregation, was established in 1864 and dedicated its current church building in 1928. The church will use the grant to replace the roof and repair the chimney. Now this long-time nucleus for the Black community’s religious, cultural, and civic activity will be preserved to its original beauty.
Halltown Memorial Chapel
(Halltown Memorial Chapel Association)
Halltown, West Virginia
A unique example of stone religious architecture in West Virginia, Halltown Memorial Chapel was constructed in 1901 by African American volunteer carpenters and stone masons living in Jefferson County. The community will use the grant to restore the Chapel to its original condition, open it for community events, and help spur Halltown’s revitalization.
St. Stephen African Methodist Episcopal Church
Wilmington, North Carolina
The St. Stephen AME Church symbolizes the heritage of free Black people who stood without reservation to worship freely and openly as they also contributed to the broader community. The congregation will use the grant to repair and restore the church’s 60 stained-glass windows, which will help maintain the sanctuary’s original design from the 1880s.
Ebenezer Methodist Church
(Lee Haven United Methodist Church)
Ebenezer Methodist Church historically served as both a church and a “Colored School” where ancestors of the present-day Lee Haven United Methodist Church community worshipped and attended. This grant will help the Lee Haven congregation stabilize the old church and prevent its demolition, making it available to another generation as a visible representation of Black religious, educational, and social history in Delaware.
Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church
The oldest historical church still standing and operating in Pittsburgh’s Northside neighborhood, Brown Chapel AME Church offers a safe, welcoming, and supportive space for the community to gather. The church will use the grant to restore its deteriorating stained-glass windows and frames, helping Brown Chapel continue to advance its mission of religion and service.
Chubb Chapel United Methodist Church
Cave Spring, Georgia
Using their own construction techniques, the free Black Chubb family established and built Chubb Chapel circa 1870, which is today the only building remaining from the original Chubbtown settlement. The grant will help preserve deteriorating features such as the bell tower and help keep Chubbtown’s history alive for new generations.
Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church
Designed and built by church members in 1919, Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church intersected with national history when some of its members were recruited to participate in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. This grant will help Shiloh assess and repair the building to ensure parishioners’ safety without compromising the original building’s aesthetics.
Mount Zion United Methodist Church
(City of Belton)
A significant part of its community over multiple generations, Mount Zion United Methodist Church reflects the legacy, oral traditions, and stories of Belton’s African American community. The City of Belton will use the grant to restore the church as much as possible to its original 1893 condition and support the local economy by making the site an interpretive destination.
Varick Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
Brooklyn, New York
As the oldest continuous Black congregation in Brooklyn, Varick Memorial AME Zion Church boasts more than two centuries of history, impact, and heritage, yet the building has been uninhabitable since 2020. This grant will support critical restoration for the building’s envelope, making it accessible once more to the active congregation and helping the church revive its high-impact community programs.
PROJECT PLANNING GRANTS
Old Sardis Baptist Church
(Old Sardis Revitalization Community Development Corporation)
One of the first Black architects in the United States, Wallace A. Rayfield designed Birmingham’s Old Sardis Baptist Church, which later became the birthplace of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. The grant will fund a historic structures report to help guide future restoration efforts at this active house of worship and community hub.
Euclid Avenue Christian Church
(East Mount Zion Baptist Church)
East Mount Zion Baptist Church worships in a National Register-designated historic Black church building, Euclid Avenue Christian Church, whose interior boasts architectural, cultural, and historic significance. This grant will support the church’s capital campaign feasibility study and rehabilitation plan, further strengthening its multi-year, multi-million-dollar preservation project.
The Lighthouse at Lane College
Built in 1923 as the St. Paul CME Church, the building now known as the Lighthouse had been central to HBCU Lane College’s campus life for decades until it closed in 2014. This grant will help Lane College develop a plan for preserving the building and reopening it as a performing arts center.
PROGRAMMING & INTERPRETATION GRANTS
Roberts Chapel Church & Burial Association
Roberts Settlement and its historic chapel offer a strong example of a Black historic settlement whose existing historic assets help tell an often-overlooked story. The grant will enable Roberts Chapel Church & Burial Association to create an interpretive outdoor public exhibit that centers the pioneers’ legacy and broadens visitors’ understanding of the Midwest’s diverse history.
The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund is a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in partnership with the Ford Foundation, The JPB Foundation, the Mellon Foundation and other partners, working to make an important and lasting contribution to our cultural landscape by elevating the stories and places of African American resilience, activism, and achievement.
Lilly Endowment Inc. is an Indianapolis-based private philanthropic foundation created in 1937 by J.K. Lilly, Sr. and his sons Eli and J.K. Jr. through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly and Company. Although the gifts of stock remain a financial bedrock of the Endowment, it is a separate entity from the company, with a distinct governing board, staff and location. In keeping with the founders’ wishes, the Endowment supports the causes of community development, education and religion. Although the Endowment maintains a special commitment to its founders’ hometown, Indianapolis, and home state, Indiana, it also funds programs throughout the United States, especially in the field of religion.
Photo (2005) of the 16th Street Baptist Church Birmingham, Alabama is by John Morse via Wikipedia.