Published January 30th, 2023 at 4:50 PM
Shards of blue glass clinked together, remnants of a memorial stained-glass window at Parkville’s historic Black church built by formerly enslaved folks.
Positioned over the steps that lead to the church entrance, the lower-left part of the large stained-glass window once displayed the name of one of Parkville University’s co-founders, John A. McAfee.
Now, it sits in a broken pile at the top of the steps of Washington Chapel C.M.E. Church.
Pearl Douglass Spencer, one of the congregants, had called the police when it was vandalized a week prior. Then early Saturday morning, she learned it had been returned. Her sister Lucille Douglass was in disbelief. She thought McAfee’s namesake was gone for good.
“It can’t be,” Douglass said, rushing up the steps where retired University of Kansas professor and friend Barbara Luetke held the broken pieces. “Praise the Lord.”
That morning, the plan was for the Douglass sisters to lead a prayer vigil and raise awareness of the missing namesake from 1907.
“The window is irreplaceable,” Luetke said.
The Douglass sisters, Lucille, Pearl and Cora, have deep roots in Parkville. Their parents moved from Illinois, raised with the stories of their great-grandfather who was enslaved until the Civil War. All of the sisters raised their families in Parkville and worshiped in the chapel on the hill at 1137 West St.
“That vandalism was not a major surprise, (but) it was hurtful. It was an emotional issue,” said Cora Thompson, a long-time parishioner and a member of the Banneker School Foundation.
“It was really painful that they chose to steal his name.”
Thompson said the recent break-in isn’t the first time for Washington Chapel. The last robbery was in the 1980s.
For years, the Douglass sisters have worked to amplify stories of Black life and historical sites in Parkville. So, this was especially hurtful to them, she said.
On Saturday evening, church leaders invited neighbors, parishioners and nearby residents to join them in a prayer vigil. They sought to unite, raise awareness of the damage and raise money to help restore the little limestone church.
A group of nearly 40 people trickled in, a blend of folks between 2 and 80 years old. It appears news that Washington Chapel, a 116-year-old church in Parkville, had been vandalized again struck a chord.
Attendees embraced the sisters. Some wrote checks. And others offered their own words of support.
Despite efforts to secure the area, and neighbors stepping in to install motion-activated lights, the small, aging congregation needs more support. Over the years, the congregation has dwindled. Local families have left to seek opportunities. Some older congregants have died.
Structurally, the aging church needs to be restored. The last successful restoration was in the 1990s, according to Missouri State Parks documentation.
Sidewalks need repaired, the bell tower needs a tune-up, and the restrooms need a refresh. The recent incident was just one more broken thing to fix.
So, a small, dedicated group is determined to keep the church’s history alive while asking folks to help with their fundraising efforts. The building is not only significant for its caretakers but also to the community’s place in history.
The church sits on the hill between West and Elm Streets, in one of the formerly segregated areas in the city.
“This was like a safe haven for African Americans,” said Archie J. Williams, an author and friend of Lucille Douglass.
Williams has known Lucille since the 1990s and has grown more involved with Parkville’s historical preservation.
“We can’t forget,” he insisted.
“We do believe that if you don’t know where you came from, you’re bound to repeat the mistakes,” she said.
Several years ago, curiousKC spoke with many of these same church members about the evolution of Black life in Parkville. The journey from enslavement to emancipation to the present is preserved in a physical space that has, for the most part, stood the test of time.
“Few independent Black churches of any denomination existed in the state before the Civil War. In fact, as late as 1856, few had yet to be established west of St. Louis,” according to a Missouri Department of Natural Resources report from 1997.
When John McAfee came to Parkville in 1875, he discovered a struggling town whose formerly enslaved population had little or no resources or work. When McAfee helped found Park College (now Park University), he made a point to employ Black men alongside the white students who were required to work at the school.
This employment opportunity marked a period of uplift for Parkville’s Black community. Further collaboration with the college also led to building Banneker, the first school for Black children in the area.
“The buildings that were constructed … when separation was considered equality also symbolize the triumph of the human spirit over this country’s segregated society,” the department report continued.
Parkville’s Black community has persisted in the fight to gather in churches like Washington Chapel, educate themselves at schools like Banneker, and work farmland that has been passed down through generations.
Now, they struggle to not let the town forget what they have been through to get here.
The lesson of this incident reaches beyond the Black community members who worship in the chapel.
“As one of my sisters says, it just is mark against a community of Parkville. The entire community, not just the African American people who attend the church,” Douglass Thompson said.
“It talks about Parkville still being a racist community. It talks about hate that still exists in Parkville.”
Washington Chapel’s congregation wants to rewrite that story and re-establish the church’s place as a beacon of safety and community. The return of John A. McAfee’s name is a step in the right direction, they say.
“For those who try to do ill. It’s sort of like physics. A bad thing that’s set into motion will stay in motion,” Williams added. “… This is a greater force that we have today.”
Washington Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church is accepting donations by check and through Cash App ($WashChapel) or PayPal (paypal.me/WashChapel). Checks can be sent to 1137 West, Parkville, Missouri 64152.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Douglass sisters were descendants of formerly enslaved families in the area. That was incorrect. Their parents were free people and moved to the region from Illinois. Their great-grandfather was enslaved but not in the Parkville area.
Catherine Hoffman covers community affairs and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.