Times Past

Trips to rebuild burned black churches in the South a reminder of a tumultuous past

Don Chivens of SLO, who helped design the Magellan telescope, signed up for the 2005 burned church rebuilding mission but died unexpectedly.
Don Chivens of SLO, who helped design the Magellan telescope, signed up for the 2005 burned church rebuilding mission but died unexpectedly.

“We sang and read scripture at various points till we came across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and there we stopped where the marchers prayed in 1965. We then ran back across the bridge. I was amazed at how long it was and how hard it was to run, especially considered many of the women on that earlier Sunday were wearing heels and some, like John Lewis, were running with a cracked skull.”

In 2003, Rev. Jane Voight, later pastor at San Luis Obispo’s United Methodist Church, led a group of UMC volunteers to rebuild Sandridge Baptist Church, a black church hit by arson in Selma, Alabama.

Her experience crossing the Pettus Bridge, site of “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, when some 600 civil rights marchers headed east out of Selma on U.S. Route 80, ironically called “the Dixie Highway,” brought back memories one of the most iconic moments in the history of the campaign for voting rights.

Two weeks later, Martin Luther King, Jr. led another march across the bridge and onto Montgomery. Roman Catholic nuns in traditional habits, rabbis and clergy from many denominations joined him. In all, around 25,000 Americans — including Liz’s father, Quentin Ogren, then a professor at Loyola Law School in L.A. — marched along what become known as the “Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Trail.”

Within five months, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, redressing a century of denying the vote to black Americans in the South.

Georgia Congressman John Lewis, one of the most revered legislators in America, still suffers from his injuries on Bloody Sunday.

Rev. Voight noticed that on her three rebuilding trips no white church congregations helped restore neighboring torched black churches, though they sometimes housed and fed the volunteers.

Rev. Rick Uhls, now pastor at UMC in SLO, also led a rebuilding mission to Selma.

“We went to a local hardware store for some supplies,” Uhls wrote. “The woman at the hardware store couldn’t have been nicer. She happily helped us with what we needed and engaged us in wonderful conversation until we told her what we were doing. She said, ‘You’re rebuilding the old black church? Why would you do that?’ At that, she no longer would speak to us. We would need to go elsewhere for supplies.”

SLO mechanical engineer Keith Brummell, on yet a third UMC trip, writes, “In Selma our task was framing. Don Chivens and Adriaan Smulders worked on window framing. It was tricky because we were building wood walls inside a metal building. Adriaan is blind and has a hearing disability.

They were a great team and once they figured out one window, they zoomed through the other windows. It was amazing to watch Adriaan nail wood frames together. Don would just locate where the nail was to be set and Adriaan would do the rest.”

Vikki Wilson was on three church rebuilding projects. She’d already volunteered on two summers on Indian reservations, “cutting lots of wood. I’d learned to measure twice and cut once!”

SLO’s Jennie Hiltel died in 1999, a year after UMC’s project to rebuild black churches in the Deep South began. The good work would have thrilled her. A gardener, Hiltel could take an ugly mound of earth and turn it into something beautiful.

With Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, Hiltel was afraid for our nation. She decided to act locally, creating something beautiful.

She conceived of the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Bar-B- Q. It’s helped more than 300 SLO students, regardless of color, learn a trade or attend college.

Honor the “burnt church angels” and Hiltel on Sunday. Enjoy a chicken BBQ to benefit the scholarship, noon to 3 p.m., at the Elks Club, 222 Elks Lane in SLO. “Eat in” or get take out for the Super Bowl.

This column is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Liz is a retired children’s librarian, and Dan is Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.