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Matagorda County
Historical Marker Narrative

 

St. Mark Missionary
Baptist Church


Bell Bottom Community
Matagorda County, Texas
 

2001 CR 162

28°56'11.02"N        95°41'8.01"W

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St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery

Bell Bottom History House


The photo, at left, was taken from the 1968
Lincoln Southern District Association program and is
courtesy of Johnnie Mae Thomas and Jerrilyn Capers.



 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 



 


ST. MARK MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH 

By Johnnie M. Thomas and Mary B. Ingram

1. CONTEXT:          

The rural community of Bell Bottom located in southeastern Matagorda County is in the Moses Morrison and William Cooper Leagues. It is in this picturesque setting where the massive coastal live oak trees line the banks of historic Caney Creek and where St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church was established in 1889 and later a burial ground was plotted. Almost all of the founding members can trace their roots to the days of slavery and the plantation life that thrived along this navigable creek. 

Before the first permanent Anglo settlers arrived in 1822, this area near the Gulf of Mexico was inhabited by the roaming Karankawa Indians. The new settlers, twenty-two in all, part of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old 300” received land grants in 1824. Beside the winding Caney Creek, where this bottom land consists of sandy black-peach soil, they begin their daunting task of clearing the cane brakes to meet the obligations set by the grant contracts. Not only did they have to deal with the elements they had constant skirmishes with the indigenous Indians. After William Cooper’s son was killed in November 1830, Moses Morrison became commander of a scouting party composed of ten men to control the Karankawas. And in 1850, Moses Morrison sold his land to John Henry Jones, Sr. for $3,480.

The region was described by Stephen F. Austin “as good in every respect as man could wish for, land first rate, plenty of timber, fine water, beautifully rolling.”  The rich Caney Creek bottoms were perfectly suited to the American plantation economy, and by the 1850s, 75 percent of the population of Matagorda County consisted of slaves.

II. OVERVIEW

In 1854 the John Henry Jones, Senior plantation was the site of the first African American Baptist Church in Texas to petition membership in the Baptist district organization. Historic Matagorda County relates the following of this first church: “After Texas became a state in 1846, Noah Hill was appointed by the Southern Baptist Convention Domestic Board to his station in Matagorda. The Baptist Church had much consideration for the slave population.  By 1852 Noah Hill, because of his interest in slaves, was employed by Texas and Southern Baptists to minister to the black people in Matagorda County as well as the counties of Brazoria and Wharton. He held revival meetings in most places he visited.  The foreign missions contributors submitted by the Matagorda Baptist Church in1848 also included $11.50 donated by Christian slaves to aid in missionary work in Africa. Of the twenty-five churches, the Matagorda Baptist Church members, both black and white, donated $22 to the missions’ total of $94.  The first Black Baptist Church to petition membership in the Baptist district organization in 1854 was a church on the plantation of J. H. Jones, Sr.”

Prior to the Civil War, plantation masters usually allowed their slaves to hold religious services. They worshiped in their quarters or in open air Christian gatherings and it was after Emancipation in 1865, that these freed people established church organization and settlements throughout the areas along Caney and Linville creeks and their contributaries. As freed citizens, they became tenant farmers or purchased small tracks of land from the plantation owners and stayed right in the same area of where they had always lived. It was at this time that the new churches became the central place in the community for worship and a place where the children could attend school.

The Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church established in 1866 and served the African American families living in the area.  In 1889, some of the members and others, under the leadership of Reverend Anthony Martin (1950-1910) organized the St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church and located it several miles down stream where it remains today. Prior to the plotting of the cemeteries on the church grounds, the bodies were buried at the old plantation burial grounds. Most of the cemeteries where slaves and later freedmen were buried are now lost to present generations.

The majority of the Morrison and Cooper League, from 1865 to 1895, were owned by Asa W. and Wells Thompson, V. L. LeTulle, and Christopher Williams. In 1895, V. L. LeTulle sold 800 acres to A. C. Bell. By 1899, Bell had sold small acreage plots to many descendants of African American slaves. This was the beginning of the community known as Bell Bottom and named for A. C. Bell.

The 1899 tax records show twelve families had purchased between 25 to 100 acres and they became the nucleus of St. Mark’s Missionary Baptist Church. Names recorded include: William Page, Jr., Jim Williams, Crawford Stephney, Lewis (Louis) Thomas, Anthony Martin, John Caffy (Cathey), Jesse, Ed Johnson, Wyatt Henry, Sol Jones, Steve Armstrong, and Yorick Adams.

Two of those purchasing the land were early leaders in the St. Mark Church. Steve Armstrong (1863-1927) and Lewis Thomas (1856-1939).  Louis Thomas had 110 acres and Steve Armstrong had 40 acres.  After building houses on their land, Thomas moved his family from the Gainesmore community and Armstrong moved his family from nearby Brazoria County to the Bell Bottom community.

Deed records dated April 19, 1919 show that Lewis (Louis) Thomas and his wife, Carrie for the sum of twenty dollars deeded to St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church, one-half acre of land out of the Morrison and Cooper league, out of Lot No. 5, in said sub-division and being same land purchased by Lewis Thomas Sr., dated November 9, 1901.  The one half acre herein and hereby conveyed being in the form of a square and its site is now occupied by Church building of said St. Mark Baptist Church. The trustees were Austin Walker, Steve Armstrong, Sim Hawkins, Daniel Stephney, and Louis Norris.

Before purchasing land and construction of their first permanent church building in 1919; the church and school were held in a very small building on the A. C. Bell land.

The cemetery on Caney Creek across from the church was first used in 1909 when Emma (Thomas) Edwards’s son was the first interred.   The Reverend Anthony Martin was interred in 1910 and John Cathey, an uncle of Mrs. Edwards was buried there in 1911.  Before 1909 people from the Bell Bottom settlement were buried on the Thompson plantation on Caney Creek.

Henry Thomas, Sr. (1897-1989), son of Lewis (Louis) Thomas, Sr. moved from the Gainesmore community to Bell Bottom at the age of eight. Henry and his older brothers went from house to house gathering corn from the neighbors to be sold to help finance the building of the church.  Thomas was ordained a deacon in 1924.

In 1889, the St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church was organized by the late Reverend Anthony Martin (1850-1910) and others. Anthony Martin was an ex slave and had worked on the Thompson plantation which later became known as Gainesmore.

St. Mark’s records list the following pastors with their years of service.

Serving on the first deacon board in 1889 with Reverend Anthony Martin were Aaron Martin, William Green, Jessie Martin, John Cathey, Lee Parks, Lewis Norris and Lewis Thomas, Sr. Jeff Robbins served as secretary. Reverend Martin served 21 years until his death in 1910.  

After Reverend Martin’s death in 1910, Reverend Lee Parks was elected pastor. The deacons were Lewis Norris, Steve Armstrong, Austin Walker, Sim Hawkins, Daniel Stephney, Lewis Thomas, Sr. and Edward Thomas. Reverend Parks served fifteen years; then Reverend Bakeo was elected pastor and served four years.

After Reverend Alec Wright’s tenure of four years as pastor, Reverend F. M. Viola was elected pastor and the deacons remained the same. Sister Malvina Henry served as secretary.  Reverend Viola served faithfully for fourteen years.   Reverend Lee Parks was re-elected pastor and served three years, the deacon remained the same and Sister Minnie Bell served as secretary. Reverend Lewis was elected pastor and served one year with the deacons and secretary remaining the same.

Reverend B. J. Williams became the next pastor and served for fourteen years. The Deacons were Henry Thomas, Sr., Sam Cathey, Edward Thomas, Lewis Thomas, Jr. and Daniel Stephney. Three deacons were ordained under his administration; Milton Welch, Clarence Holmes, Sr. and Frank James, Jr. Sister Evalina Holmes, church secretary.

On April 23, 1955, Reverend Napoleon J. Johnson was elected pastor and served for the next thirty-seven years retiring in 1992. The first deacons under his administration were Milton Welch, Henry Thomas, Sr. Clarence Holmes, Sr., Frank, James, Sr., and Andrew Stafford. Deacons Owens Austin, Samuel Thomas, Eddie Griggs, Sr., and Herman Austin were added under Reverend Johnson’s administration. Sister Easter Stephney and Sister  Roosevelt Law were secretaries..

On May 10, 1970, St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church family moved into their new building. At that time Deacons were Henry Thomas, Sr., Clarence Holmes, Sr., Eddie Griggs, Sr., Samuel Thomas and Herman Austin; Secretaries, Sister Roosevelt Law, Sister Allinori Austin; and Sister Johnnie M. Thomas, Treasurer; Deacon Henry Thomas, Sr., Pianist; Sister Francis Thomas, assistant Pianist; Sister A. A. Fletcher, Building Fund Treasurer; Deacon Eddie Griggs, Sr., Building Fund Secretary; Sister Ora Lee Dale, Junior Secretary; Sister Sharon Griggs, Building Committee; Deacon Samuel Thomas, Clarence Holmes, Sr., and Deacon Herman Austin, architect and builder.

Milton L. Fields served the church 1992-2000. Deacons under his term were Clarence Holmes, Samuel Thomas, A. C. Henry, Eddie Griggs, Jr. Associate ministers were Rodney W. Griggs and Mark A. Bree.

Reverend H. L. Hawkins became the minister in February 2000. The deacons with the additional deacons F. Bree, Jr., Kenneth Grice and Elroy Griggs have served under Hawkins tenure. 

“The new building was completed on May 10, 1970 and the church family moved from a wood framed building to the brick structure which was electrically convenient, with lights, air conditioning, padded pews and panel walls inside; indoor toilet, facilities with cold water fountain in the church and fellowship hall and a Baptistery in the sanctuary.  In 1992, deep water well was drilled for indoor running water, ceiling fans were installed and telephone speakers were installed in the Fellowship Hall.”

III. SIGNIFICANCE 

The St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church continues their quest for higher learning and having a closer walk with God.  The date is not recorded but St. Mark joined The Lincoln Southern District Association and was actively involved in the Sunday school and B.T.U. Congress and Mission.  Some of the early participants were Sister Easter Stephney, Sister Alonia Armstrong Welch, Sister Minnie Walter Bell, Sister Roosevelt Walker Law and Sister Ora Lee Dale.

The church has served the Bell Bottom settlement in many ways through the years. According to interviews with long time members, the music program has been an important part of the church activities with a choir program for young and old. Older members remember well the Sunshine Band when they were children and youth and what it meant to their life. Being a rural community the members take care of the sick and those in need throughout this settlement. Especially important is their Homecoming and Celebration Sunday the second Sunday in October each year when present and former members meet for an all day reunion.

Most of all this church is significant as it is one of ten along Caney Creek that has survive the years and vital part of the history of African American people dating back to slavery in Matagorda County.
 

 


ST. MARK MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH

  IN 1889, AFRICAN-AMERICAN SETTLERS UNDER THE LEADERSHIP OF THE REV. ANTHONY MARTIN, A FREEDMAN, ORGANIZED ST. MARK MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH. MANY OF THE CHURCH MEMBERS WERE FREEDPERSONS AND LATER BECAME PART OF THE BELL BOTTOM COMMUNITY AFTER IT ORGANIZED IN 1899. BY 1919, THE CONGREGATION BEGAN WORK ON A PERMANENT CHURCH STRUCTURE HERE. THE CHURCH IS ALSO ASSOCIATED WITH A NEARBY CEMETERY; THE FIRST RECORDED BURIAL THERE DATES TO 1909. THROUGHOUT ITS HISTORY, MEMBERS HAVE CARED FOR THE NEEDY IN THE RURAL COMMUNITIES OF THIS AREA. IN 1970, MEMBERS ERECTED A NEW SANCTUARY. TODAY, ST. MARK MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH CONTINUES TO SERVE AS A SPIRITUAL LEADER IN MATAGORDA COUNTY.

(2009)
 


 

Copyright 2010 - Present by Matagorda County Historical Commission
All rights reserved

Created
Sep. 18, 2010
Updated
Nov. 30, 2010
   

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