No Black churches in Denton have historical designation from the city
At Mt. Cavalry Baptist Church on Wilson Street, the Rev. Reginald Logan stands in front of a small congregation, recounting the six-month struggle that brought pastors from five historic Denton churches to the pulpit area on a Saturday morning in mid-February. Each pastor was receiving a $10,000 check from a Dallas developer who’d been planning for three years now to build an upscale apartment complex next to Oakwood Cemetery in Southeast Denton.
Established in 1857 when Denton was founded, Oakwood Cemetery is more than a place where people from their congregations are sometimes buried. A Denton Public Library blog post calls it the one “spot in Denton where one can get a feel for the breadth of the City’s history.”
The same could be said of the five historic churches in Southeast Denton and their pastors who gathered on this Saturday morning at Mt. Calvary. Over the decades, the pastors have helped their community face the worst that society has thrown at them, from slavery and racism to forced removal. Now, it’s impending gentrification with the city’s 2040 plan for Southeast Denton, as Donald McDade, Southeast Denton’s representative to the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission, warned at a neighborhood meeting in September.
“There is a big purple dot right in Southeast Denton,” McDade said.
The Rev. Mason Rice is the spiritual leader of St. James AME, the oldest recorded African American church in Southeast Denton, organized in 1875. An older gentleman who’s seen many years behind the pulpit, Rice is joined by the Revs. George Garnett III and Keaton Fuller from St. Emmanuel Baptist Church and Mt. Pilgrim CME Church, two congregations with more than 100 years in Denton.
The Rev. Homer Webb Jr. from Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, and the Rev. Clarence Hardin from St. Andrew Church of God in Christ also joined Rice at the front of the church. They’re all part of what’s known as Southeast Denton Ministerial Alliance, a group centered around supporting the pastors.
Those ministers have assembled to gather $50,000 in checks. The donations serve as not only a reminder of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, as Logan pointed out when he announced the donations at a MLK Day celebration, but also a recognition of their churches’ historic connection to Denton in light of the city’s 2040 plan for the area.
“We didn’t know about it,” Logan told the Record-Chronicle. “We heard about the Railway apartments [in the fall of 2022]. [The city] had changed the zoning, and we didn’t know about it.”
This lack of awareness also relates to the official historic status of the churches gathered on this Saturday morning at Mt. Calvary. None of them have “designation status” from the city of Denton, despite the Texas Historical Commission’s markers at St. James AME Church and St. Emmanuel Baptist Church and the city’s historic landmark one at Pleasant Grove Baptist.
“Within the City of Denton’s city limits, there are no local, state or nationally designated churches,” city staff wrote.
With designation status from the city, historical properties can receive more protection through zoning action, and have the potential for rebates if designated by the Texas Historical Commission or the National Register of Historic Places.
It’s an issue that Randy Hunt from Historic Denton is working with Logan to address, and hopefully change, with other pastors as part of the 100th anniversary of Quakertown. Nonprofit organization Historic Denton advocates for preserving historic areas and properties in Denton.
Of the five historic churches represented at Mt. Calvary Baptist on Saturday morning, St. James, Pleasant Grove and St. Emmanuel had church buildings at Quakertown before the neighborhood’s forced relocation in 1922 by city leaders.
The two other churches — Mt. Pilgrim CME Church and St. Andrew Church of God in Christ — have historical significance due to their relationship with Freedman Town, a Black enclave of Quakertown.
But there are several churches in Southeast Denton that Hunt said could qualify for official historic recognition by the city, state and nationally, including East Prairie Church of Christ, Mt. Calvary Baptist and Morse Street Baptist, Mt. Pilgrim CME Church and Simmons Street Church of Christ. There are opportunities with the Texas Historical Commission or the National Register of Historic Places.
If both the state and national organizations recognize the churches, Hunt wrote in a 2022 report to the Southeast Denton Neighborhood Association, they could be eligible for a total rebate of 45% — 25% from the state and 20% from federal — in financial incentives to help provide rehabilitation to their buildings.
Obtaining recognition is important, Hunt said, because these churches, along with other historic buildings in Denton, provide a sense of place, offering a foundation for residents while also driving tourism to the city.
“Equal favor to residential areas and buildings which hold iconic values must be recognized,” Hunt told the Record-Chronicle. “The state and federal governments find our sense of place and history worthy of inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places — why does the city and their plans ignore what is found of high value outside of the city limits?”
Denton outlines two processes for a church to receive a historical marker from the Texas Historical Commission or a designation status from the city, state or federal government.
To qualify for a historical marker, the subject must be at least 50 years old and the application must include a 5- to 10-page historical narrative, the owner’s permission for placement of the marker, and proof of ownership whether by deed or tax appraisal.
Several churches in Denton have historical markers from the Texas Historical Commission. Two of those churches — St. James and St. Emmanuel — are located in Southeast Denton. The others include Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, First Baptist Church of Denton, First Christian Church and First United Methodist Church.
Historical designation status from Denton, though, “requires a higher level of scrutiny related to the property/structure’s historical significance and the necessitates approvals by the City to ensure that alterations to a property/structure are historically appropriate, in some cases, results in zoning protection,” according to city staff.
The zoning protection requires a property owner to receive approval from Denton’s Historical Landmark Commission and the Planning and Zoning Commission, as well as the City Council, before any structural changes could happen.
State- and national-level historical designations, however, don’t require a zoning action. But the Historical Landmark Commission does require a formal review of proposed changes to the property or structure.
Denton has 13 requirements, and one or more is needed to receive a local designation. Some of those criteria include: “location as the site of a historic event,” “a building or structure that, because of its location, has become of value to a neighborhood, community area or the city or value as an aspect of community sentiment and public pride.”
The Texas Historical Commission requirements for designation as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark are simpler: At least 50 years old and historical significance and architectural integrity from that historic time period.
The National Register of Historic Places includes six requirements, with at least one needed for a place to receive a designation: location of a significant impact on American history overall, strongly associated with a nationally significant figure in American history, outstanding illustration of an overall broad theme or trend in America, an outstanding example of architectural style or significant development in engineering, or is part of a group of resources that form a historic district or a property with nationally significant archeological information.
In his report to SEDNA, Hunt advised that several churches could qualify for a historic designation under the National Register of Historic Places, Mt. Calvary in particular — if the church can verify that its buildings are at least 50 years old. Hunt wasn’t sure about when it was established because the cornerstone of the building couldn’t be found.
Inside, Mt. Calvary felt like more than 50 years had passed as pastors from the historic churches gathered at the altar for a photograph. A mixture of older and younger religious leaders, all seemed thankful to receive the checks through a community benefit agreement with the developer, yet also seemed apprehensive about what the future holds for Southeast Denton.
Change is coming to the area. The zoning has been done. The plan has been made. Planning & Zoning sounded the alarm unofficially six months ago at the neighborhood meeting. The $50,000 in checks from the community benefit agreement is another sign.
Logan said the Southeast Denton community wasn’t aware about the zoning changes or how they would affect them, despite public hearings on the proposed changes. He made reference to it during that presentation at Mt. Calvary.
Even if they had been aware, Hunt claimed that hundreds of residents had opposed the zoning changes and the 2040 plan, yet the City Council moved forward with it.
Hunt said the neighborhoods are forming a grassroots organization to fight it and argued that the city should reexamine the 2040 plan and harshly question how it will affect neighborhoods like Southeast Denton.
It’s why officially recognizing the history of churches, buildings and neighborhoods is so important through governmental entities such as the Texas Historical Commission, Hunt said.
At Mt. Calvary Baptist on Saturdaymorning, Logan referred to the financial recognition as a blessing from God and mentioned his conversation with the developer’s representative, Aimee Bissett from 97 Land Co., which led to the $50,000 donation from the developer to the five historic churches.
“That’s why we’re here today, through a conversation,” Logan told the small congregation. “The Lord said, ‘I will give you things before you can ask for them.’ It was God.”
The congregation replied, “That’s right.” “That’s right.” “He did it.”
“We need the ministerial alliance,” Logan continued. “We need to let the city see that we’re unified to make things happen in Southeast Denton.”