Restoration Of Historic African-American Church In West Baden Nears Completion

Jun 4, 2018

 

Indiana Landmarks placed the church on its 10 Most Endangered List in 2014.
Credit James Vavrek / WFIU/WTIU News

West Baden’s historic First Baptist Church was once considered one of the most endangered landmarks in the state. But now, it’s on its way to holding its first service in decades.

Every Friday, a small group of volunteers from Bloomington’s Second Baptist Church goes down to West Baden. They’ve been making the trip twice a week for about a year to restore the town’s historic all-black church, one of the only standing structures tied to the city’s African-American heritage.

While other volunteers fix walls and windows in the small, white church building, Elizabeth Mitchell is trying to find some of the names of the church’s original congregation, who worshiped in West Baden more than a hundred years ago.

“We are in the process of finding out who those people are,” she says. “We have found about 10, and we have found descendants of two so far.”

Black workers from the West Baden Springs Hotel built the church in 1920. The hotel’s owner, Lee Sinclair, sold them the property because he wanted to provide a place of worship to his employees

“They had their own everything. Hotels, churches, restaurants, places to party for social activities,” says French Lick West Baden Museum Director Patty Drabing. “Because of segregation you have to have your own everything.”

But a lot of those structures that served as the center of life for the African-American community in West Baden no longer exist. Drabing says that makes it all the more important to keep the church standing.

“The Waddy Hotel is burned down. The Babylon burned down,” she says. “We’ve lost a lot of our historical buildings because they’re made out of wood, so we need to save that church.”

Black workers from the West Baden Springs Hotel built the church in 1920. The hotel’s owner, Lee Sinclair, sold them the property because he wanted to provide a place of worship to his employees

“They had their own everything. Hotels, churches, restaurants, places to party for social activities,” says French Lick West Baden Museum Director Patty Drabing. “Because of segregation you have to have your own everything.”

But a lot of those structures that served as the center of life for the African-American community in West Baden no longer exist. Drabing says that makes it all the more important to keep the church standing.

“The Waddy Hotel is burned down. The Babylon burned down,” she says. “We’ve lost a lot of our historical buildings because they’re made out of wood, so we need to save that church.”

Another volunteer with the project, Thomas Doyle Sr., agrees that the West Baden community has been very welcoming.

“They’re opening their arms like they never done before,” he says. “They have just been over-abundantly appreciative of what we’re doing.”

Funding A Potential Hurdle For Finishing Project

Mitchell says the biggest challenge right now is getting funding. They’re about $50,000 short of a $200,000 goal. But she says the fact that they’ve gotten this far speaks to the importance of the project for the community.

“They most certainly deserve to be remembered and this community had, was such a large community and to be forgotten would have been a shame,” Mitchell says. “So now is the time, it’s the time to tell stories of African-Americans.”

Volunteers are hoping to finish fundraising and complete the restoration soon so they can begin to host services for the new congregation.