"The Best School for Blacks in the State" St. Mark's Academic and Industrial School Birmingham, Alabama 1892-1940*

Article excerpt

Studies of the education of African Americans in the post-Civil War South, writings on African Americans and the Episcopal Church, and works about Birmingham schools, churches, and history often mention St. Mark's School. Some of these publications provide a few facts and figures about the school but little information about how it came to be founded, who founded it, its curricula and operations, and its closing. The story of St. Mark's illustrates many aspects of race relations in the South, attitudes toward education for blacks, and the activities of an elite, white denomination in dealing with these matters in the half century from 1890 to 1940.

Founded in 1871, Birmingham was well launched as an industrial and commercial city by 1890. It was first peopled by immigrants from other parts of Alabama, from other states, and other countries, especially those of eastern and central Europe. The native-born immigrants included a large number of African Americans attracted like whites by employment possibilities in the coal mines and the iron and steel industry. This movement of blacks to the city coincided with the growth and triumph of segregation embodied in Jim Crow laws and in ordinances and in the Alabama constitution of 1901. One response of blacks to this situation was the formation of their own communities, both physical and religious, within the city.1

Securing educational facilities was an important part of the African-American push for advancement and recognition. Before the 189Os few Alabama communities provided more than ungraded elementary schools for whites and nothing for blacks. Birmingham did somewhat better by its white students and even gave African Americans a few crumbs. In 1890 there were three black elementary schools in the city receiving public support. These were housed in unsatisfactory buildings and had high student-teacher ratios.2

Among the African Americans who came to Birmingham there were surely not many Episcopalians. The church had been closely identified with white slave owners in the antebellum period; most southern blacks who had been counted as Episcopalians left the denomination after emancipation. With a hierarchical organization entirely dominated by white males and a highly structured liturgy, the Episcopal Church attracted few African Americans in the immediate post-Civil War years.3

In 1891 three black male Episcopalians requested that Episcopal services for African Americans be started in Birmingham. The leader of this group was C. V. Auguste, a native of the West Indies, principal of one of the black elementary schools. The other two were Charles Smith and Solton L. Warren.4 They probably first approached James A. Van Hoose (1852-1936), a prominent Birmingham businessman who was to serve as mayor in 1894-96. He had attended seminary but gave up his ambition to be a priest when his eyes failed. He became a permanent deacon and for more than thirty years was a missioner in the Birmingham area, founding churches and filling in when there was a clerical vacancy in established parishes.3 With the support of Bishop Richard Hooker Wilmer, these men organized a black mission to be called St. Mark's.

Wilmer, elected Bishop of Alabama in 1861, was a native of Virginia. His views about blacks were what one would expect of a former slaveholder from the upper South. Though paternalistic about the relationship of whites and blacks, he nevertheless believed that the church should make every effort to reach African Americans. At the diocesan convention of 1882 he had urged his diocese to seek to attract and serve blacks. An AfricanAmerican congregation was organized in Mobile in the 186Os, St. Mark's in 1892, and one in Montgomery began in 1900.6

The first service of the new Birmingham mission was held in a rented room in November 1891.7 Within a year the fledgling congregation began a school for girls in its hall on Avenue A between 19th and 20th Streets. …