The story goes that the stones used to build the historic West Hunter Street Baptist Church building were laid in 1906 by former slaves.
Today those stones are crumbling, as the spiritual home of civil rights leader and pastor Ralph David Abernathy sits vacant and boarded up between a wings restaurant and a barbershop in Vine City in downtown Atlanta.
But the Abernathy family’s long-hoped-for restoration of the historic church could begin in the next few months.
Annette Abernathy, widow of the Ralph David Abernathy III, said her husband’s plan was to turn it into a museum in honor of his mother and father and their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
“The family is planning to move forward with that vision,” she said Feb. 7.
The Ralph David Abernathy III Foundation, which owns the church building, was awarded a $451,571 grant from the National Park Service on Jan. 12, 2017, to undertake a condition assessment of the building, architectural and engineering plans, and hazardous material abatement.
The grant was one of 39 totaling $7.75 million awarded in 2016 through the park service's African American Civil Rights Grant Program that aims to document, interpret, and preserve the sites and stories related to the African American struggle for equal rights.
The historic West Hunter church project was the only Georgia recipient of the 2016 grants, funded by the Historic Preservation Fund and administered by the NPS.
The park service is also investigating the possibility of making the old church a National Historic Site.
Annette Abernathy is succeeding her late husband by leading the restoration efforts, as CEO of the foundation set up in his name.
Her late husband was the son of Ralph David Abernathy, the civil rights leader, close friend and lieutenant of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Abernathy III, a former state senator and a preacher, died of liver cancer on March 17, 2016, two days before his 57th birthday.<br/>
Even though his checkered life included a stint in prison for bilking the state out of $5,700 by filing false expense reports, he spent the last year of his life trying to raise $3.5 million to build a “freedom plaza” outside the historic West Hunter Street Baptist Church, an iconic landmark from the civil rights era where his father was pastor from 1961 to 1990, the longest of any other pastor.
Abernathy III bought the building about 16 years ago with plans to turn it into a museum and make it a central part of a plaza that would honor his parents', Ralph and Juanita, civil rights contributions which have often been overshadowed by those of their more well known friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The two were shoulder to shoulder in strategy sessions, at marches and were jailed together 17 times in the struggle for civil rights.
Abernathy III's vision for the plaza included a 25-foot bronze monument dedicated to his parents, Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and John Lewis.
There were also plans for a wall featuring the names of all freedom fighters and SCLC staff.
The historic West Hunter Street Baptist Church, which was organized in 1881, was located in the now boarded up building at 775 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive SW, formerly West Hunter Street, in Atlanta from 1906 to 1973.
In its heyday the church was at the center of the Civil Rights Movement.
Hundreds of activists were trained there in non-violence and many important decisions – including the decision for the first march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. in 1963 – were made under its now collapsing ceilings.
The National Park Service launched the West Hunter Street Baptist Church Special Resource Study after Congress passed Public Law 113-291 on Dec. 19, 2014 to seek to preserve civil rights monuments.
Through 2016, the law directed the NPS to evaluate the national significance of the West Hunter Street Church site, and the suitability and feasibility of designating it as a unit of the national park system.
Annette Abernathy said Tuesday that she and other family members are grateful for the park service’s grant and its exploration of National Historic Site designation for the old church building.
She said her family wants to see her husband’s vision for the church come to fruition and that as soon as the money is in the bank, contractors will begin the most urgent work.
“It’s my hope that if we are able to begin soon, we should be able to have it completed by the end of the summer or before fall,” she said. “That may be a little aggressive, but that is my hope.”
Abernathy said the most urgent work includes repairing the historic church’s roof to stop further water damage; securing the original stained glass windows so they are not broken or further damaged; cleaning the church; securing it against vagrants and homeless people; ventilation to prevent mold build-up; and removal of any hazardous material such as asbestos and lead paint.
Just a few blocks from the old church, contractors are building a $1.5 billion stadium to replace the Georgia Dome.
Since 1973 when the church’s congregation moved two miles to its current, larger site of worship at 1040 Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, the historic church building has been largely vacant.
Bars cover street-level windows and pieces of glass are missing from the faded stained-glass creations above. Its large wooden doors that once welcomed congregation members and civil rights activists are permanently locked, and a billboard frame on the church’s façade hangs empty.
The Ralph David Abernathy III Foundation applied for the park service grant in October 2016 with support of U.S. Representative Hank Johnson.
Johnson, who represents Georgia's Fourth District that includes South DeKalb County, said the history of the Civil Rights Movement is a lesson in democratic ideals and it is our duty to preserve these landmarks and to share their significance with future generations.
“These funds are an important down payment to save this historic church and the important stories of the people who worshipped here,” Johnson said.
Study commissioned in 2014<strong>Study commissioned in 2014</strong> Study commissioned in 2014
In Feb. 2014 US Rep. Hank Johnson introduced the West Hunter Street Baptist Church Study Act to the U.S. House of Representatives.
It directed the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a special resource study of the historic church and the block on which it is located.
The Act required the Secretary to evaluate the national significance of the site; determine the suitability and feasibility of designating it as a unit of the National Park System; consider alternatives for the site’s preservation, protection and interpretation; consider the effect the site would have on commercial and recreational activities as part of the park system; and identify authorities involved in the site for land use decisions.
The Act had 77 co-sponsors, went through the Committee on Natural Resources, and in Sep. 2014 it passed in the House.
It was received that month in the Senate, read twice, and referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources before being passed by Congress on Dec. 19, 2014.
In Jan. 2016 the National Park Service announced official plans to begin exploring the possibility of making the old church a National Historic Site.
Based on the special resource study, the park service will determine whether the historic church meets criteria for inclusion in the national park system and make recommendations to the Secretary of Interior, which would then forward the recommendations to Congress.
The process is expected to take several years.