Lilly Endowment Inc., (LE) which supports religious, educational and charitable causes, has launched a new initiative to preserve historic Black churches in the United States.
LE recently contributed a $20 million donation to the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund as seed money to fund the Preserving Black Churches Project. The money will be directed towards helping various U.S. Black churches facing a myriad of challenges, including one slammed during the recent tornado that killed more than 20 people in Mayfield, Kentucky.
The Cultural Heritage Action Fund was launched by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The potentially game-changing announcement regarding the $20 million donation coincided with the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday.
According to Brett Leggs, executive director of the fund, the project will provide churches assistance with things including asset management and helping historic churches tell their own stories rather than using the funds to simply replace broken windows or polish pews.
One of the beneficiaries of these funds is Mayfield, Kentucky’s St. James AME Church, founded in 1868 just three years after the Civil War. The church, which was devastated by the Mayfield twister that made national news, will receive $100,000 as the first recipient of the project’s special emergency funding, according to Leggs.
“Once the slaves were freed, one of the things they wanted to start was a church home,” said Rev. Ralph Johnson, presiding elder of the church district in which St. James is part. “They wanted to work out their spiritual salvation and have a place to congregate, and they also were used as schools and other things.”
Black churches served a vital role after the Civil War ended and Black people were no longer enslaved.
St. James, like many U.S. Black churches, skews older in member demographics. In fact, all of the church’s less than 20 members are seniors. Johnson said the church needs all the help it can get
The fund previously has assisted congregations including Mother Emmanuel AME Church, where white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine parishioners during a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, and Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, a Civil Rights Movement fixture which was bombed in the 1950s.
The Action Fund, which has raised more than $70 million, has assisted with more than 200 preservation projects nationally. It was started by the National Trust for Historic Preservation after clashes between white supremacists and protesters during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
The fund is touted as the largest-ever attempt to preserve sites linked to African American history.