The oldest African-American congregation in Decatur, and one of the oldest in Morgan County, King’s Memorial United Methodist evolved from the predominately white First Methodist Episcopal Church South in 1854 when Richard and Charity Rather began ministering separately to “African and bi-racial members.” These members designed, built and paid for their own building on Lafayette Street, opposite the First Church building on Church Street. Among those early members was a young Matthew H. Banks, who would later become Decatur’s second black city councilman.
“I was sexton of that church from the time I was big enough to do anything up to the time the war come on. There were two buildings on the lot, the white folks’ church and the office. The colored folks’ church set on the next lot… There was a fence between the colored church lot and the other one. The main church faced Church Street and the colored church faced LaFayette.”
—Matthew H. Banks
After the Civil War, the congregation, then known as St. Paul's Methodist Episcopal Church, joined with Northern Methodists to form the Alabama Methodist Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1867. Around the same time, they moved to a building on Oak and Market Street, which also housed a Freedman's Aid Society school during Reconstruction. After relocating briefly to what is now Wilson Street, the congregation returned to Lafayette Street, where trustees had been “authorized to purchase land… from the City of Decatur through Mayor James Todd.” On this property, they built a “one-story Neo-Gothic white clapboard church,” which was destroyed by fire in 1907 after lightning struck the central bell tower. Members who worked for the L&N Railroad secured the use of several freight cars as a temporary sanctuary, and the congregation voted to rebuild on the same site.
In 1908, the church changed its name to King’s Memorial in honor of Willis Jefferson King, who had visited Decatur at the church’s invitation to lead a revival, and would later be elected Bishop of the Methodist Church. That same year, they laid a cornerstone for the “brick raised cottage designed church” pictured above and designed by renowned black architect W.A. Rayfield, who would later design the nearby First Missionary Baptist Church. The Rayfield building has since been demolished, and King’s Memorial is currently located just south of this site, in buildings constructed in 1986 and 2014.
Just east of King’s Memorial, on the opposite side of Vine Street, is an empty lot where the Elite Theatre once stood. Owned and operated by the Namie family, the theatre catered to a black audience during the segregation era, when other Decatur theatres refused service or restricted seating for African Americans.
Next door to the Elite, on the corner of Vine and Madison, was a warehouse building also owned by the Namies. To view a photo of the warehouse taken from the north side of Vine Street in 1978, tap the image below, grab the arrow on the left-hand side and drag rightward. (The Elite Theatre is partly visible on the right-hand side of the archival image.)
Just west of the Elite Theatre was the cage in which theatre owner Mike Namie kept Leo, his pet African lion. Occasionally, the fearsome cat would escape from his enclosure and worried parents would call for their children to come inside. Once Leo was safely locked away, Decatur artist Frances Tate recalls, “they’d say, ‘Leo’s up,’ and we’d get out and play again.”
Directly west of Leo's cage, at 419 Vine Street, was the home of Dr. Winston H. Sherard. According to Dr. Sherard's daughter, he built the fence visible on the left-hand side of the photo below to shield the property and his family from the Namies' exotic pet.
On the west end of this block, directly across Vine Street from King’s Memorial, is the now-vacant Al’s Grocery building. Namie’s Grocery, owned first by Frank Namie (Mike’s brother) and later by his son Frank Jr., stood on this site until 1963 when it was destroyed by fire.
Visible behind Frank Namie Jr. in the photo above is the Teenage Ballroom. To see this intersection as it once looked, tap the image below, grab the arrow on the left-hand side and drag rightward. Then continue west on Vine Street and tap the button at the bottom of the page to move onto the next stop.