On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced wonderful news for New Orleans: The Trust awarded two historic congregations — St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Mid City and St. Augustine Catholic Church in Tremé — with Preserving Black Churches grants worth $200,000 each.

St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church was established by Free People of Color in 1848 and is known as the first AME church in the Deep South. The PRC was honored to assist Rev. Demetrese Phillips in this grant application, which focused largely on the need to replace the church’s historic roof spires, several of which blew off during Hurricane Katrina 19 years ago. The missing spires have led to water intrusion inside the church, which will be remedied thanks to this grant. The money also will fix some settling issues in the rear part of the historic structure.

The church has done a commendable job of raising thousands of dollars to start the work. Now, this $200,000 grant will allow the congregation to finally finish the renovations.

When St. James AME Church was founded, its congregation included both Free People of Color and enslaved individuals, and it was shut down by police between 1858 and 1862 for allowing enslaved people to attend services. The church was the headquarters for members of the Louisiana Native Guards, who were Black Union soldiers during the Civil War, and it has remained active in civil rights and social justice work into the modern era. During the Civil Rights movement, marches held in New Orleans were staged at St. James.

Notable past members of the church include P.B.S. Pinchback, Louisiana’s Black governor who served from Dec. 9, 1872, to Jan. 13, 1873; Oscar J. Dunn, the state’s Black lieutenant governor who also briefly became acting governor; Jordan Bankston Noble, Andrew Jackson’s drummer during the Battle of New Orleans; and actor Tyler Perry. Numerous fraternal organizations originated at the church, including the Prince Hall Masons of Louisiana and the Colored Knights of Pythias. In addition to hosting an active congregation today and serving the Mid-City community, the church is the meeting location for the local chapter of the NAACP, the Boy Scouts, and more.

St. Augustine Catholic Church in the Tremé is another esteemed historic congregation in the city. It also was established by Free People of Color, but from the start, white citizens, enslaved individuals and Free People of Color worshipped there together, making it the most integrated historic church in the country. It remains a diverse congregation to this day.

St. Augustine had been raising money towards the church’s restoration when Hurricane Ida brought significant new damage to the circa-1842 structure in 2021. As a nearly 200-year-old building, there are needed interior and exterior maintenance repairs, including asbestos abatement. Insurance settlement money, as well as funds raised by the Friends of Tremé Culture group and other donations, have been used for recent roof repairs and other Ida-related fixes.

As a recipient of this $200,000 grant, St. Augustine significantly moves closer to getting the historic buildings on its campus restored, especially its main church building. The congregation has been meeting in ancillary space since Hurricane Ida.

For many years, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has made incredible investments in New Orleans. In addition to this year’s grants, the three-year-old Preserving Black Churches program of the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund granted Holy Aid and Comfort Spiritual Church in the 7th Ward, also known as Perseverance Benevolent Society and Mutual Aid Association Hall, a $100,000 grant last year towards rebuilding the mostly collapsed structure.

Through the National Trust’s Backing Historic Small Restaurants fund, Antoine’s was awarded a grant in 2022, and Dooky Chase won funding in 2021. Awards from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund have supported the TEP (Tate, Etienne, Prevost) Center in the Lower 9th Ward, the Dew Drop Inn’s restoration, and the Revival Grants program at the PRC. (In full disclosure, I joined the National Trust’s Board of Directors this year, but the work I’m citing here has been investments made by the Trust over several years.

There’s much more direct investment than is listed here, and though there’s not space to mention it all, it is worth remembering that the Trust set up a satellite office in New Orleans in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina — located within the PRC’s headquarters — to assist as the city’s preservation community joined forces to rebuild. The national organization has been a champion for New Orleans for decades, and we’re grateful for its continued investment in our historic city. The Trust will get the opportunity to showcase its investments here when it hosts the national PastForward conference Oct. 28-30 at the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street.

The PRC was honored to assist in St. James AME’s ongoing revitalization. This mission work is at the heart of who we are and what we do — assisting communities in preserving and revitalizing the places that matter most to them.

Danielle Del Sol is the Executive Director of the Preservation Resource Center.