Sunday, April 10, 2016

Uncovering a Church Affiliation: Rev. Castleberry and Thirty First Street Baptist Church

I love the social history side of genealogical research as much as I love the names, dates and events side of it. Sometimes a tidbit of information makes me run off in a different research direction, hoping to gain context that will help me understand my ancestors’ and relatives’ lives.

As I’ve been researching my Alabama family, one thing I’ve started tracking is the name of the pastor, minister or religious official who signed off on their marriage license. My hope is that through this, I’ll learn what religious institutions they were affiliated with, learn more about those institutions’ roles within my ancestors’ communities, and maybe even find religious records that mention my family. Even when I don’t find all these things, it’s interesting to look.

One name that kept coming up, especially in the Evans family marriages, was Rev. Wm. Castleberry. You can see his name below, cropped from marriage certificates for my great-great grandfather James Steven Evans and also his son, Marshall Evans.




In fact, between 1920 and 1937, he solemnized 5 weddings for the family, all of them in Birmingham:

  • My great-great-grandfather James Steven Evans to his second wife, Ella Smith (1920)
  • James’ daughter Janie Mae Evans to her first husband William Dyle (1926)
  • Janie Mae Evans to her second husband James Baker (1930)
  • James’ son Marshall Evans to his first wife Lillian Harris (1930)
  • Lillian Harris to her second husband Perry Garner (1937)

Five times in 18 years might not seem significant, but this actually means Reverend William Castleberry conducted half of all the Evans weddings known to me that took place during that time period. In the 48 years of marriage records I have for my Alabama Evans family, only 1 other pastor shows up as frequently (Rev. N. Heard – I’ll explore him in another post).

So, who was Rev. Castleberry and what church was he affiliated with? I turned to census records and city directories to figure it out. Lucky for me, he wasn’t that difficult to find!

Here’s a snippet from the 1920 Census, showing a WM Castleberry living with his wife Sylvester and their children in Birmingham, Alabama. You can see that his occupation is listed as Minister in a B. (presumably Baptist) Church.

(1920 U.S. Census for Birmingham, AL. Note: I've cut out the irrelevant middle columns.)
Ten years later, in 1930, you can again find him in the census with his family. His occupation is Preacher in a Church.

(1930 U.S. Census for Birmingham, AL. Note: I've cut out the irrelevant middle columns.)
And you can see him in the list of Clergy in the Birmingham City Directory for several years. Here’s 1935.


So, what church is he affiliated with? Let’s go back to 1920 (which, incidentally is the year of the first Evans marriage that we know of that he officiated). This time, we’re looking at the Birmingham City Directory.

 
Mount Nebo Baptist Church. (In fact, he’s pastor here in 1919 as well.) But, if we jump ahead, this isn’t the only church he’s affiliate with – the City Directories for 1931 and 1935 show him as being the Pastor of Thirty First Street Baptist Church.



Now, I haven’t been able to find much out about either of these churches, but what I did find was kinda cool. Thanks to the witchcraft and sorcery of the archivists at the Birmingham Public Library involving tax records, land parcel numbers and whatnot, we were able to find Thirty First Street Baptist Church in the Jefferson County Tax Map Book for the year 2000.


Or at least, we found where the church used to be. I say that because, according to Google Street View, there’s nothing there but a parking lot for Kurt’s Truck Parts.


But, check this out, when you look at the standard view for Google Maps:


Mt. Nebo Baptist Church, the name of Rev. Castleberry’s church in 1919 and 1920! So maybe they were the same church, with different names at various points in time? One way or another, I haven’t found any books, newspaper articles, or pictures to tell me more. But, again, thanks to the magicians at the Birmingham Public Library, I did find this:


This is a photo of Thirty First Street Baptist Church taken in 1939. It was taken because taxes were assessed based on physical characteristics of the building and its location – the photo is from the County Board of Equalization files. It has VOID scribbled on it because the building was torn down in 1955, making the photo irrelevant for tax purposes. But it’s still awesome for genealogical purposes!

Reverend Castleberry continues to appear in the Birmingham City Directory until 1939, though he stops being listed as a Reverend or Pastor about 1937. This is the year of the last marriage I've found that he performs for the Evans family. He passes away in October of 1940 and is laid to rest in  Shadow Lawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery, Birmingham's largest African American Cemetery (founded in 1889).

What was the Evans family’s relationship to Reverend Castleberry and Mt Nebo / Thirty First Street Baptist Church? Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t random. Though the family had other options both in the smaller communities they lived in outside of Birmingham, and MANY additional options in the city itself, they kept coming back to him. I hope I can find more information that sheds light on this pastor, his church(es) and their role in the lives both of my ancestors and of the larger black community they served. If so, you know I’ll share it here!

Do you know something about Reverend William Castleberry? Or about Thirty First Street Baptist Church or Mt. Nebo Baptist Church? If so, please share!

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