A 116-Year-Old Memorial Was Stolen, Then Returned, to a Historic Black Church

A 116-Year-Old Memorial Was Stolen, Then Returned, to a Historic Black Church

Share this story

Above image credit: On January 21, the Washington Chapel was broken into and a piece of a memorial stained glass window was removed. The name of Park College founder John A McAfee, seen here, holds significance for the church. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Countryside)

Shards of blue glass clinked together, remnants of a memorial stained glass window at Parkville’s historic Black church built by formerly enslaved people.

Placed over the steps leading to the church entrance, the lower left part of the large stained glass window once displayed the name of one of Parkville University’s co-founders, John A. McAfee.

Now it sits in a broken pile at the top of the steps of Washington Chapel CME Church.

Pearl Douglass Spencer, one of the parishioners, called the police when it was vandalized a week earlier. Then early Saturday morning, she learned that it had been returned. Her sister Lucille Douglass was in disbelief. She thought McAfee’s namesake was gone forever.

“It can’t be,” Douglass said, rushing up the stairs where retired University of Kansas professor and friend Barbara Leutke held the broken pieces. “Praise the Lord.”

That morning, the plan was for the Douglass sisters to lead a prayer vigil and raise awareness of the missing 1907 namesake.

“The window is irreplaceable,” Leutke said.

The Douglass sisters, Lucille, Pearl and Cora, are the descendants of formerly enslaved families in the area. They raised their families in Parkville and lived in the Chapel on the Hill at 1137 West St.

“That vandalism was not a big surprise, (but) it hurt. It was an emotional issue,” said Cora Thompson, a longtime parishioner and a member of the Banneker School Foundation.

“It was very painful that they chose to steal his name.”

Cora Thompson was one of the few dedicated members who focused on reviving the historic Washington Chapel in Parkville, Missouri. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Countryside)

Thompson said the recent break-in is not the first time for Washington Chapel. The last robbery was in the 1980s.

For years, the Douglass sisters worked to enhance stories of black life and historic sites in Parkville. So, it was especially painful for them, she said.

Church leaders invited neighbors, parishioners and nearby residents to join them in a prayer vigil on Saturday evening. They tried to unite, raise awareness of the damage and raise money to help restore the small limestone church.

A group of nearly 40 people poured in, a mix of people between 2 and 80 years old. It seems news that Washington Chapel, a 116-year-old church in Parkville, has been vandalized again has struck a chord.

Attendees hugged the sisters. Some wrote checks. And others offered their own words of support.

Despite efforts to secure the area, and neighbors stepping in to install motion-activated lights, the small, aging congregation needs more support. Over the years the congregation declined. Local families left to seek opportunities. Some older parishioners died.

A stone plaque with the date Washington Chapel was established. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Flatland) The prayer vigil for the Washington Chapel included a traditional ceremony led by Archie J. Williams. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Flatland) On January 21, the commemorative stained glass window was broken into, removing a piece of Park College founder John A. McAfee. (Contributed)

Structurally, the aging church needs to be repaired. The last successful restoration was in the 1990s, according to Missouri State Parks documentation.

Sidewalks need to be repaired, the clock tower needs to be renovated, and the toilets need to be refreshed. The recent incident was just one more broken thing to fix.

So, a small, dedicated group is determined to keep the church’s history alive while asking people to help with their fundraising efforts. The building is not only important to its caretakers, but also to the community’s place in history.

The church sits on the hill between West and Elm Streets, in one of the formerly segregated areas in the city.

“It was like a safe haven for African Americans,” said Archie J. Williams, an author and friend of Lucille Douglass.

Williams has known Lucille since the 1990s and has become more involved in Parkville’s historic preservation.

“We cannot forget,” he insisted.

Archie J. Williams delivers papers outlining the agenda before the vigil at Washington Chapel, a historic Black church in Parkville, Missouri. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho | Countryside)

Thompson agreed.

“We do believe that if you don’t know where you came from, you will probably repeat the mistakes,” she said.

Several years ago, curiousKC spoke with many of these same church members about the evolution of Black life in Parkville. The journey from addiction to emancipation to the present is preserved in a physical space that has for the most part stood the test of time.

“Few independent black churches of any denomination existed in the state before the Civil War. In fact, as late as 1856, little west of St. Louis,” according to a 1997 Missouri Department of Natural Resources report.

When John McAfee came to Parkville in 1875, he discovered a struggling town whose formerly enslaved population had little or no resources or jobs. When McAfee helped found Park College (now Park University), he made a point of employing black men alongside the white students who had to work at the school.

Parishioners in the Washington Chapel sometime in the 20th century. (Contributed) Washington Chapel was dedicated on June 29, 1907, seen in this rare film image. (Missouri Department of Natural Resources)

This job opportunity was a period of upliftment for Parkville’s Black community. Further collaboration with the college also led to the building of Banneker, the first school for Black children in the area.

“The buildings built … when segregation was considered equality also symbolize the triumph of the human spirit over this country’s segregated society,” the department’s report continued.

Parkville’s Black community persevered in the struggle to gather in churches like Washington Chapel, educate themselves at schools like Banneker, and cultivate farmland passed down through generations.

Now they struggle not to let the town forget what they went through to get here.

The lesson of this incident extends beyond the Black community members who worship in the chapel.

“As one of my sisters says, it’s just a sign against a community of Parkville. The whole community, not just the African-American people who attend the church,” said Douglass Thompson.

“It speaks to Parkville still being a racist community. It speaks to hatred that still exists in Parkville.”

Washington Chapel’s congregation wants to rewrite that story and reestablish the church’s place as a beacon of safety and community. The return of John A. McAfee’s name is a step in the right direction, they say.

“For those who try to do ill. It’s kind of like physics. A bad thing that is set in motion will stay in motion,” Williams added. “… It is a greater power that we have today.”

Washington Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church accepts donations by check and through Cash App ($WashChapel) or PayPal (paypal.me/WashChapel). Checks can be sent to 1137 West, Parkville, Missouri 64152.

Catherine Hoffman covers community affairs and culture for Kansas City PBS in association with Report for America. The work of our Report for America Corps members is made possible in part by the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.

Like what you read?

Discover more unheard stories about Kansas City, every Thursday.

Thanks for subscribing!

Check your inbox, you should see something from us.

Empower Kansas City journalists to tell stories you love, about the community you love. Donate to Countryside.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *