Wesley United Methodist Church, one of Columbia’s oldest African-American congregations, served as a pivotal gathering place for the city’s black population.
The 135-year-old church was founded in 1869 by the Rev. J.C. Emerson, presiding elder of the Florida Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
“Like so many churches, it functioned both as a house of worship and a vital community institution,” said Bobby Donaldson, a history and African-American Studies professor at the University of South Carolina.
Documents from Historic Columbia Foundation show that the congregation originally met in the upstairs hall of a Main Street building but moved to the current location at Gervais and Barnwell streets some time after 1873, when it started the Columbia Mission as it was originally known. The current church was built in 1911.
Donaldson said because of the church’s close ties to Claflin University, it drew members from all parts of the city, among them congregants from the surrounding working class community as well as influential leaders and professionals such as I. S. Leevy, E. Perry Palmer and Dr. Noble P. Cooper.
The church collaborated with the Rev. I. DeQuincey Newman to contribute resources and space to support and sustain the civil rights struggle in Columbia, Donaldson said. Training sessions with student leaders on civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action took place at the church.
The church has remained largely unchanged architecturally since it was completed in 1911. Noted South Carolina architect Arthur Williams Hamby, who designed many buildings in Columbia, rendered the church in the late Gothic Revival style, according to Historic Columbia Foundation. The high-style nature of the building was a rarity for an African-American congregation during the Jim Crow era in Columbia.
The church is one of the few remaining early 20th-century buildings on a major thoroughfare that once boasted many architecturally significant structures.
It at one time faced potential demolition but was saved by parishioners whose efforts resulted in extensive exterior restoration work within the structure’s masonry and stained glass windows, according to Historic Columbia. The first phase of a detailed preservation project included the installation of a new roof and flashing masonry cleaning and repair, and window refurbishing and replacement.
“Amid so much change and transformation along the Gervais Street coordinator, Wesley stands as an old landmark—an enduring reminder of years of service and stewardship,” Donaldson said.