One of Iowa’s Oldest Black Churches Has Lost Its Building, but Not Its Heart

A group of people tour the former Burns United Methodist Church on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2015 in Des Moines. Community members toured the building before its demolition.   Kelsey Kremer/The Register
A group of people tour the former Burns United Methodist Church on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2015 in Des Moines. Community members toured the building before its demolition. Kelsey Kremer/The Register

NOTE: This column has been corrected to reflect that Burns United Methodist Church isn’t the first black church founded in Iowa. The former Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was established circa 1849 in Muscatine. And Second Baptist Church, started in 1863 in Mount Pleasant, continues to worship. 

I feel as if I’m perched atop the capital city when I stand on the front steps of 811 Crocker Street.

Parking lots slope downhill to where the Des Moines skyline fills the south horizon, with the 801 Grand tower as the pointy centerpiece.

I’m at the doorstep of what once was the home of Burns United Methodist Church. Now it’s a vacant, crumbling wreck where every lungful of dank basement air brings the sting of mold.

And now 811 Crocker is due to be sold and razed so that the prime lot can be redeveloped into apartments.

This congregation was founded in 1866 as one of the first black churches in Iowa — just three years after the Emancipation Proclamation and a year after the Civil War.

The church was named after Francis Burns, who died in 1863. There are numerous Burns UMC churches nationwide because he was the denomination’s first black bishop, born in New York and praised for his extensive missionary work in Liberia.

The Des Moines congregation was quoted a price tag of at least $250,000 to adequately refurbish their church, said Joyce Wilks. So ultimately the 50 or so active worshipers in 2011 moved north and took over the former Gatchel UMC at 1909 Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.

This isn’t the church’s original address. It bounced among about half a dozen spots before finally in 1930 it bought this building from a German Emmanuel Methodist congregation.

The lights never went out here during the Great Depression, members still are proud to say. In 1977 the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

It’s almost as if this derelict church is a lonely, holy outpost of black history with the sea of redevelopment lapping at its doorstep — half a century after the freeway and other big projects steamrolled through the heart of the city and erased the vibrant Center Street District that had been the cultural and business center for local blacks.

With Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the calendar I shouldn’t have to remind anybody about the pivotal role that black churches played in the Civil Rights struggle.

One of Burns’ members, Gaynelle Narcisse, 81, remembers the last worship service here five years ago, shortly before Easter. The congregation switched off the lights and exited in silence.

“I felt like I had been to a funeral,” Narcisse said, “having to leave after all those years.”

Wilks was on hand with a set of keys last week when a couple dozen of the usual suspects of Des Moines’ historic preservation and salvage scene turned out for a public tour. They picked over the bones of church history.

Click here to read more

Source: The Des Moines Register | Kyle Munson, kmunson@dmreg.com