In addition to being the diocese’s director of communications, I also serve as the bishop-appointed historiographer. In that role I routinely get asked all kinds of questions about the history of the diocese, but recently those questions have had a singular focus: does the Diocese of Kansas have, or have we ever had, any historically Black churches?
Today, the answer is no. But in our past, we have had four Black congregations that provided ministry to communities that often felt, or frequently actually were, excluded from existing Episcopal churches.
Information in this article about these churches comes in part from two histories of the diocese: The First 100 Years, a short book written in 1959 for the diocese’s centennial; and Plenteous Harvest, a longer work that looked at the history of the Episcopal Church in Kansas from 1837 to 1973. Other information comes from other sources, including interviews I have done with people associated with some of those churches.
The Episcopal Church’s General Convention in 1865 expressed concern for the religious instruction of recently freed slaves, but little money went toward that effort.
In 1866, Bishop Thomas Vail, shortly after his election as the first bishop of the Diocese of Kansas, visited the “colored” Sunday school in Fort Scott. And in 1876, the Diocesan Convention looked for ways to “interest the colored people of the diocese in our church services.”
Several parishes did create Sunday schools for Black children, but only with the creation of the four predominantly Black congregations did the church in Kansas see much work in reaching Black members.
In 1917 the Episcopal Church consecrated its first Black bishop, Edward Demby, to serve Black congregations in the Province of the Southwest. Bishop Demby made 26 visits to the four Black churches in Kansas between 1927 and 1938, but those congregations remained under the jurisdiction of the bishops of Kansas.
They did so in part because they valued their close connection to, and support from, their bishops, but also because they held seats and votes at Diocesan Convention, something Bishop Demby, who served many Black churches but without jurisdiction anywhere, could not provide.
St. Simon’s, Topeka
St. Simon’s, Topeka, was organized in 1884, originally under the name St. Philip’s, and in 1885 it was admitted as a congregation of the diocese. Its delegate, F. R. McKinley, was the first Black member of the convention.
Throughout much of its history, the small mission church had no priest of its own, with services provided by priests from nearby Grace Cathedral, but it raised up at least four clergy from among its members, including Deacon Joe Thompson, who served as the church’s vicar from his ordination in 1956 to 1964, and then served at the cathedral until his death in 2003.
In an interview in 1998, Thompson said he first attended St. Simon’s in 1911 as a 6-year-old. His father, who was an Episcopalian, took him and his sisters into town to begin Sunday school classes at Grace Cathedral.
His father’s buggy that day was met at the curb by some men of the cathedral, who turned them away and directed them to St. Simon’s.
The church was closed by Bishop Edward Turner in 1964, after he had concluded that segregated parishes were not in keeping with the church’s declared position on human rights.
Thompson said that after its closing, about half the members of St. Simon’s began worshiping at the cathedral or at St. David’s. “A lot of people didn’t feel comfortable attending one of the white churches because they hadn’t been welcomed there before,” he said.
Church of the Ascension, Kansas City
Church of the Ascension was founded in 1888 to provide a church for Black people in Kansas City. It maintained a robust ministry, often with its own priest, and occupied a variety of buildings. In 1959 it had a membership of 179 people.
But in the 1970s, financial support from the diocese no longer was forthcoming, and some members chose to move to St. Paul’s, the other church in Kansas City, Kan. By the 1990s its numbers continued to dwindle, and it was meeting in space at Turner House, which for several decades was a diocesan ministry to underserved youth and adults in Kansas City.
In 1998 Ascension merged with St. Paul’s, after a period of shared ministry and joint work by the priests that had served the two congregations. The chapel at St. Paul’s was renamed Ascension Chapel, intended to be a living memorial to the members of Church of the Ascension.
Bishop William Smalley presided over the service marking the merger. Noting that this action closed the last Black church in the diocese, he said, “If this action means we don’t have a commitment to ministry among our African American brothers and sisters, this closing would not be good, and it would not be to our advantage.”
The Rev. Dixie Junk, priest in charge at St. Paul’s, says some members from Ascension today are St. Paul’s parishioners, along with Black members who previously had joined the church apart from the merger.
St. Augustine’s, Wichita
St. Augustine’s was established in 1910, and it also was closed by Bishop Turner in 1964. It had its own building for much of its 50 years, but at the time of its closing, the church was meeting on the campus of Wichita State University.
Maxine Walters, who was a member of the church, in a 1998 interview said the church had struggled financially as the number of members declined. After it was closed, she said Bishop Turner encouraged members to attend other Episcopal churches.
“He didn’t want a parish to be black or white, so he asked us to attend different churches,” she said. Walters said about two-thirds of the members did move to other Episcopal churches in the city. She first attended the now-closed St. Christopher’s before becoming a member of St. John’s. She died in 2003 after a career working for civil rights.
But a section of the Episcopal Church online archives, “African American and the Struggle for Justice,” describing the work of the church’s last vicar, the Rev. Earl Neil, tells a different story about what happened to St. Augustine’s members. It said, “An inability to integrate the parishioners into other Episcopal parishes in Wichita resulted in the migration of 98 percent of the parish to other denominations.”
It also said that the loss of his parish inspired Neil “to make resistance to segregation the heart of his pastoral mission.” After leaving Kansas he helped organize the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., worked with the Black Panthers while serving a church in Oakland, Calif., and in 2005 moved to South Africa and served on the staff of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
St. Philip’s, Leavenworth
This Black mission church was founded in 1896 and operated without clergy and in mostly rented facilities for most of its existence. Despite valiant efforts to remain a viable church, St. Philip’s closed in 1949 for lack of funds and members.