Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, 16 Thomas Street

The origins of this Thomas Street church, constructed in 1878, lie in the free Black community that composed its congregation. During the antebellum period, the free Black community of Radcliffeborough and Cannonborough lived under tight constraints, especially in the aftermath of Denmark Vesey’s attempted rebellion. Despite the restrictions, the free Black community continued to survive, and in some cases, even thrive. 

This community survived through the era of slavery, some attaining a fair amount of wealth. On Easter Sunday just after the Civil War ended, April 16, 1865, the congregation of Saint Mark's formed. Led by their first rector, Joseph Seabrooke, the church mainly formed in response to the free Black members being expelled from churches that they had attended with white citizens, such as Saint Phillip’s and Saint Luke’s. Although the congregation lacked a place to worship,  the members were able to meet in member Robert Engel’s house on Coming Street while they collected donations to build the church.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

It was in 1875 that the congregation bought the current plot of land on Thomas Street and laid the cornerstone. The following year, in 1876, they applied to have delegates present in the Episcopal convention of South Carolina and for their delegates to have voting power in the House of Deputies in the General Convention of the church, which had met regularly every three years since 1785.

A commission of the Church’s convention, however, wrote a report that argued against the inclusion of the delegates of Saint Mark's, due to their mixed-race heritage. Especially dangerous in the eyes of the men of the South Carolina Episcopal Convention was the inclusion of mixed-race women, with their “tempts to miscegenation”--a reference to the fears in this time of interracial relationships. These men advocated that the church not be admitted to the convention with delegates, a position that angered the congregation because they desired representation as equal members of the Episcopal Church. They argued that it was their inherent right as members of the Church to have representatives in the convention, but the writers of the report concluded that the Church “recognizes no inherent rights … to control our judgement and polity.” 

In light of this, Bishop Stevens of the Reformed Episcopal Church offered the church members the opportunity to join the Reformed Episcopal church. The offer certainly would have been tempting—they had been refused representation into the orthodox Episcopal Church, and they were being offered full representation within the Reformed Church. However, out of dedication to Episcopal orthodoxy, the congregation declined this offer. Despite the racist policies on the part of the convention, the congregation of Saint Mark's’s continued to struggle for equality in the Church while being faithful to orthodox Episcopalian practice. 

Eventually, Saint Mark's managed to gain acceptance, but only so long as their rector was white. In this way, the commission accepted them into the Episcopal Church and gave them representation, but not under their own leadership. In 1877, Seabrooke died, having resigned shortly before to help give his congregation a place in the larger church structure. In part, this can be viewed as a victory for the congregation, being one of the very few congregations of color that was represented in majority-white church organizations. However, it was not a total victory because they were effectively under "white supervision" as a church. 

The current church building, constructed and consecrated in 1878, has a clapboard exterior with several intricate stained glass windows dedicated to religious scenes and donors to the church. Designed by architect Louis Barbot, the church falls in line with many of his other buildings that were inspired by the Maison Carree in France. The inspiration from the ancient Roman temple is clear when viewing the façade of Saint Mark's.

This church's history is a strong example of the legacy of slavery, illustrated by the congregation’s struggles to achieve equal representation in the Episcopal Church. The ongoing fight for equality is anchored in such institutions as Saint Mark's Episcopal Church.

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16 Thomas Street, Charleston, SC 29403