Wheeler Hill’s St. James church remains steadfast link to neighborhood’s past

By Caitlyn McGuire
July 22, 2013

At first sight, Columbia looks like a city composed of a large football stadium, some office towers and numerous fast-food chains. Except for a few exceptions, like the Vista, over the past few decades redevelopment has largely meant out with the old and in with the new.

This was especially true for the Wheeler Hill neighborhood next to USC’s campus. Controversial urban renewal about 40 years ago transformed it from a predominantly African-American low-income community to a largely affluent white neighborhood

But one place has remained. The St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church has stood at 413 Henderson St. in Wheeler Hill since 1870. Despite the changes around it, St. James has maintained a strong church community and resisted change.

“It’s been a long journey,” says 95-year old Fannie Phelps Adams, a lifelong Wheeler Hill resident and St. James member.

Phelps says that despite seeing the drastic changes around her, she’s glad she decided to stay and proud to see the neighborhood’s new residents embrace the 102-year-old church as a landmark.

Fannie Phelps Adams, lifelong St. James AME church member and Wheeler Hill resident, talks about how people return to St. James, even if they have moved away.

Mozelle Powell, a church member for 78 years, is not quite so sanguine. “The thing is, they could not move this church or they would’ve had it,” she says.

They say there’s good reason the church was never moved. It’s all because of a small deal made in 1871.

“I guess a man by the name of Mr. Wheeler gave [the neighborhood] this church for one dollar,” Powell says. “And he said as long as it’s a store or a church, it’s ours.”

St. James AME isn’t just for Sunday services, however. It is used for neighborhood meetings and events, and members agree their new neighbors have fully embraced the church’s history.

Music minister Joann Grant says keeping the building in good shape has helped to also keep the St. James congregation alive. Compared to St. James, even some buildings registered as historical landmarks are not well kept after 40 years of urban renewal that has taken its toll.

Until 1975, for instance, Florence C. Benson Elementary School thrived as a learning community for Wheeler Hill’s African-American residents. It still stands at 226 Bull St., the school’s name printed in white letters on the front of the brick building, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

But it has been subject to what former City Councilwoman Anne Sinclair calls “demolition by neglect.”

“People don’t even realize it was a school,” said former student Francis Addison, who also is a lifelong Wheeler Hill resident and a St. James member. “It used to be such a big part of the community, and now that’s gone. There aren’t many African-American staples left here.”

As USC grew quickly in the 1960s and ’70s, what was then the Carolina Research and Development Foundation purchased much of the land in Wheeler Hill.

At other edges of campus, African-American businesses were also demolished to build things like the Carolina Coliseum, removing neighborhood landmarks.

Most recently, the city has struggled to keep what is left of Ward 1, another former predominantly African-America neighborhood that stretched from Assembly Street to the Congaree River. Before Columbia stepped in to buy the Palmetto Compress warehouse, one of that neighborhood’s remaining landmarks was about to be torn down.

St. James AME still exists for another reason: The Columbia Housing Authority took great pains to preserve it, said Nancy Stoudenmire, the authority’s director of human resources and planning.

She worked on helping Wheeler Hill residents during the neighborhood’s tumultuous change.

“We try to be sensitive to the needs of the community,” she said. “Churches are a strong part of communities, and no one has any business tearing them down.”

Grant says she and the other parishioners have tried to get St. James AME listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but that because of the degree of renovations, it is not eligible.

But compared with the drastic changes they saw in their neighborhood, to them this is just a hiccup in the church’s long and vibrant journey.

Former City Council Member Anne Sinclair talks about the importance of the church to the Wheeler Hill Community.

“There’s a real sense of pride that the church is there,” said Sinclair, who represented the area on City Council for 20 years. “It’s a symbol for what the community was.”

Grant, Phelps and Powell say that, more than anything, the members have kept the church alive.

“It’s amazing the number of churches our members pass every Sunday to get to us,” Grant says.

Phelps says the church has been a lifelong home for many members and is not just something they walk away from, even if they had to move away.

“It’s a good place to be,” says Phelps. “People are friendly and make you feel at home. As the good Lord says, that you love your neighbors, and neighbors are not only the ones next to you, but the ones far away that come back.”

Read more about preservation in Columbia.

You might also be interested in reading Wheeler Hill couple remembers thriving African-American neighborhood

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