On Sunday May 31, the Santa Barbara Chapter of Black Lives Matter and Juneteenth Santa Barbara issued a list of demands for action that included in part:
We demand protection and preservation of Black landmarks.
The demands identified specific buildings to be designated as historic resources including St. Paul’s AME Church at 502 Olive Street. Why is this request and this building so important?
St. Paul A.M.E. Church, Santa Barbara. Image originally obtained from Laura K. Simmons for publication in “African-Americans on the Central Coast: A Photo Essay” (Black Gold Cooperative Library System, 1993).
The way a community decides to designate places as historic can affect its long-term historical memory. In addition to recognizing those who built it, designating a building and thereby assisting with its preservation helps define who we are as a community. Historic buildings remind us of our moments of triumph, help us remember and grieve our tragedies, and help document the daily life of our diverse residents and the institutions they built.
Crop of 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map showing St. Paul’s AME Church at the corner of Canal (now Olive) and Haley Streets.
There had been an African Methodist Episcopal church on the site of 502 Olive Street since 1906, when it was the only structure on the entire block, and Olive Street was known as Canal Street. It was built by the local African American congregation to serve as a house of worship for its members.
St. Paul’s AME Church as it appears on the original 1930 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Map, Volume 1 corrected to 1958 in the collection of the Presidio Research Center.
By 1930, the Church, possibly a newer building constructed after the 1925 earthquake, had taken on the form we recognize today—a larger and more substantial building with an attached dwelling.
In 1990, St. Paul’s AME Church was added to the City’s list of potential Historical Resources and assigned the note: “potential Landmark status.” A City landmark is the highest level of designation offered by the City. Today, in response to the demands of local activists, we sent a letter to the Historic Landmarks Commission requesting that this building be added to the agenda of the next Designation Subcommittee for consideration for landmark status. This important African American resource has held its ground and served its community for over 100 years, and deserves recognition for the history it represents, in addition to its beautiful architecture. The time to designate it is now.
Is this the only building deserving of recognition? Not by a long shot. We have much more work to do. The field of historic preservation and museums have not always been at the forefront of diversity, equity and inclusion. We need to improve, and we begin by looking inward. Our organizational values include “Promote the diversity of cultures that comprise(d) the Presidio Neighborhood.” Today we extend those values outward into our City, County and beyond. We stand with those who are striving, fighting, and praying for equity and justice in our country in the face of persistent racism. As an organization we will continue improve our service to the community of Santa Barbara and to lift up its complex, sometimes disheartening, and often heroic stories until all the voices, past and present, are able to be heard.
Our colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture have created a new digital resource, Talking about Race. We will use this resource internally, and we share it here as it may be of interest to you as well.