Historic black church torn down in Newport

NEWPORT, AR (KAIT) – Neighbors bid their final goodbyes Monday morning to the old St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which stood more than a century in Newport.

People watched as the historically black church at the corner of Sixth and Main Streets was demolished in less than an hour.

Church members vacated the building several years ago, deeming it too unsafe to use and too costly to restore.

"It was a hurting thing to do," Donald Tolerson said, "but it was the right thing to do."

Tolerson and his neighbors knew the day would come when the old St. Paul AME Church would have to be torn down. First built in 1888, the building had moved past its prime.

"When I drove up, I felt so sad to see the church being torn down," member Marie Robinson said, "and I said I'll sit here a while because I don't want to go up there and be crying."

The building had suffered significant water damage over the years, and it became a hazard not just to maintain but also to attend.

"There are a lot of memories there," Tolerson said. "It's a lot of memories about a lot of older people who have come and gone, but those memories you hold in your heart but the building just had to go."

The church relocated across town to Rink Road in 2003. Visitors can find remnants of the church's former home everywhere, including the old marble cornerstone, the pulpit and pews.

"We took out the pews from this church," said Tolerson, pointing to the old church that had been reduced to rubble. "The pews that came with this church, we took them out, reconditioned them and put in the new church."

The old church may be gone but is hardly forgotten.

Many in the neighborhood near the old church remember the first black kindergarten being housed there or how the church served as shelter during one of the town's devastating floods.

It's this legacy that leaves some like 90-year-old Clifton Leroy Brown wishing more had been done to save the structure.

"I think it's one of the greatest mistakes that they made by moving out," Brown said, "because this is an old landmark, and it meant a lot."

Church members are still unsure what will become of the lot when the rubble is removed, though some suggest making it a memorial to the church's longstanding history in the community.

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