Historic Selma Church Building Destroyed by Tornado

Historic Selma Church Building Destroyed by Tornado

This was a building where former slaves had worshiped, where planning meetings were held in advance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s arrival for the Selma-to-Montgomery march, and where the church’s pastor served as a peacemaker in bringing blacks and whites together during the Civil Rights era.

–Civil rights landmark is a total loss
–Three worshipers escape
–Leaders say they will rebuild

(Selma, Alabama) There’s nothing left standing of the Selma Reformed Presbyterian Church building except a portion of the basement. The wood-frame landmark that had been built for freed slaves to worship in, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had planned civil rights initiatives, and whose members had started a school, a hospital, and a YMCA when equal access to public services was still a dream—that landmark is dust.

In that building three people were studying the Bible and praying in a basement classroom on January 12, 2023 when a tornado struck.

Rev. Winston Williams, a supply preacher for the congregation for the past five years, had heard a forecast for severe weather but decided not to cancel the prayer meeting because a new couple had come the previous week, and he knew they would be there at 11:30 a.m. looking for him. Some members of the church decided not to leave their houses after hearing the forecast.

So it was just the three of them, and they opened the Bibles to the book of First John. Just after noon there was a sudden quiet that was quickly followed by a sound like a rushing train. Rev. Williams’ first impulse was to lead the group to a room he thought would be safer. “We tried to get into the room and couldn’t. The suction wouldn’t let me open the door.” It all happened fast, he said.

They hit the floor as the building rumbled. Dust circulated in the air, and papers flew around. But their senses didn’t fathom the gravity of the tornado’s impact.

Before long, they heard voices outside, and the sound of chain saws. They left the building and saw that the building above them had been flattened. “I was shocked when I went outside and saw the destruction.”

“At no time did I ever feel any fear or that I would die,” Williams said. “I put that to our confidence in Christ.”

The woman who had been in the church building injured her leg as she hit the floor, but otherwise the three were OK.

Rev. Williams’ next thought was for the children at the school next door—the school that the Reformed Presbyterian Church had founded to provide education for children of freed slaves. Later, Knox Academy became a public school and is now known as the School of Discovery. Williams said there were over 300 children in the building when the tornado struck.

He found the children all safe, but scared. Some cried. Three trees had been toppled, and large air conditioning units had been picked up by the storm, but the classrooms were intact. Williams and the other adults stayed with the children a long time until parents came for them.

Next Steps

“Our plan is to rebuild,” said George Evans, clerk of session for the Selma Reformed Presbyterian Church and a former mayor of Selma. “We do not plan to call it quits.”

This was a building where former slaves had worshiped, where planning meetings were held in advance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s arrival for the Selma-to-Montgomery march, and where the church’s pastor served as a peacemaker in bringing blacks and whites together during the Civil Rights era.

Organized in 1875 as a place for freedmen to worship after the Civil War, the Selma Reformed Presbyterian Church arose out of Knox Academy. That school eventually grew to over 600 students and trained many future leaders. The first principal was George Milton Elliott, first black pastor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church and first pastor of the Selma congregation. Nearby, a hospital was started by one of the church members to provide equal access to good medical care.  The local YMCA grew from the boys’ club founded by Selma pastor Claude Brown and was eventually named for him.

Dr. King was present at some of the planning meetings in the church building. The building had also held the only planning meeting for a group of whites who went on the Selma-to-Montgomery march. The church was later honored for “courageous support of the voting rights struggle in the ’60s,” and a plaque was installed at the back of the auditorium. The plaque was recovered from the rubble. The church building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (https://www.ruralswalabama.org/attraction/reformed-presbyterian-church-selma-al/) .

Church members don’t say much about their past accomplishments or present ministry, preferring to live quiet lives for Christ. “We’ve always been a low-key church,” George Evans said.

Leaders have met once with the insurance company, and another meeting is scheduled next week to form an action plan. Some debris removal needs to be done before they can assess the full extent of the damage. When they do rebuild, they’ll have many guidelines to follow for a historic building.

Insurance will cover the depreciated value of the building, so there will be some costs to be borne by the church, as well as a lot of work. In the meantime, Selma University has offered its cafeteria space to the church for their services, and another Presbyterian church has offered its chapel for future services as needed.

There was no loss of life in Selma, and no member of Selma RP Church was injured or had dwellings damaged. George Evans is grateful for the mercy of God in that. Of course there is no way to replace, with lumber and nails, the unique history of the church building or to reproduce the courage and sacrifice to which the building was a testament.

Along with the collapse of the 145-year-old wood-frame church building, the manse next door received major damage, as well as Rev. Williams’ car.

When Williams left the school building and returned to the church basement to gather his belongings, he could look up and see nothing but air where a tall church structure had once stood. When he entered the area of the basement that had protected him and two others, he found the Bible he had been using still open to the same page in First John that they had been studying when the EF2 tornado blew through.

Selma Reformed Presbyterian Church is a congregation of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (reformedpresbyterian.org), a 230-year-old denomination that banned slaveholders from membership and that supported the Underground Railroad. That story, and where the Selma church fits into it, is told in the book A Candle Against the Dark.

In the next several days, an account will be set up for anyone wishing to donate online to the church. Information will also be available for anyone wanting to help in person once arrangements are made. Currently, checks for Selma relief can be sent to the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, 7408 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15208.

Drew Gordon is editor of Reformed Presbyterian Witness. 412-805-4999



SelmaBasementRoom.jpg—Where Rev. Winston Williams and two others were meeting when the tornado struck (credit: George Evans)

SelmaChurchSide.jpg—Basement with church structure collapsed into it (credit: George Evans)

SelmaChurchAndManse.jpg—Original buildings, pre-tornado

SelmaInterior.jpg—Looking from the basement into the collapsed sanctuary (credit: George Evans)

SelmaManse.jpg—Showing the manse and Rev. Williams’ SUV (credit: George Evans)

SelmaPlaque.jpg—civil rights plaque mentioned in the article

HistoricGraduation.jpg—Knox Academy students on graduation day in the Selma RP church building (credit: Reformed Presbyterian Witness)

HistoricChurch.jpg—Old photo of the church when it had a steeple (credit: Reformed Presbyterian Witness)

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