Title image: "Build by Enslaved Peoples"

“The aesthetic, to me, is not as important as the political resonance of buildings. Architectural history without people is not interesting. We want to know how people used buildings and to understand their relationships with the built environment.” - Jesús Escobar, as cited in Golosinski [1]

The Downtown Columbus area is full of beautiful architecture, historic buildings, structures, and houses. Architecture can help us learn about the culture, values, social system, and lives of those who utilize the buildings. Labor from enslaved persons went largely undocumented but can be assumed to be used for buildings constructed before or during the Civil War. During the Jim Crow era, many times, those responsible for designing and constructing the buildings could not utilize them due to segregation. Other exhibit items will feature buildings specifically built to be "separate but equal."

Completed in 1833, St. Elmo was initially named “El Dorado.” Colonel Seaborn Jones spared no expense during the construction of the family home, and the house would become one of the finest examples of classical architecture in the city. Henry Benning, Colonel Seaborn Jones’ son-in-law, moved the family away after the Civil War, leaving the house vacant for several years before L. F. Garrard sold El Dorado to the Slade family in 1875. Captain James J. Slade and his wife would rechristen the house “St. Elmo” and turn it into a girl’s school. Augusta Jane Evans Wilson, the niece of Seaborn Jones’ wife, wrote her novel, St. Elmo, using the house as the inspiration for her setting [2].

Underneath the stucco and creating the foundation on which this grand house was built are the bricks made by enslaved people. In a description given to the Ledger-Enquirer, Mrs. Schley, a former owner of St. Elmo, describes the technique for making bricks, stating that the clay for the bricks was taken from the land and hand-molded. These were then laid in the sun to dry [3]. The oak and cedar used in the construction also came from the land. During this era, labor from enslaved people was used not only around homesteads, but also for construction in the cities. It was common for enslaved peoples to be hired out during winter months or when a larger labor force was unnecessary. Hired enslaved people would be hired out to the city at a profit for their owner [4].

Postcard of a Diorama of the CSS Muscogee at the Confederate Naval Museum, Columbus, Georgia 

Exhibition Item

The title above reflects the previous name of the now "National Civil War Naval Museum".

Columbus became an essential asset to the Confederacy during the Civil War due to its manufacturing capabilities. The Union attempted to cut off the transportation of goods by establishing blockades to weaken the Confederacy. There were previous attempts to use ironclads against such blockades, but the plans were put to rest after an accidental explosion on board the CSS Chattahoochee. In 1863, plans to use ironclads to combat the blockades were put back into action. These plans called for the CSS Chattahoochee to be recommissioned after extensive repairs. An additional ironclad was built, the CSS Muscogee [5].

Both ironclads would be destroyed as the Union Army came into the city. The Confederacy set fire to the CSS Chattahoochee, and the Union set the CSS Muscogee ablaze. Their remains were salvaged in 1961, and the CSS Muscogee’s remains are displayed at the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus. 

Both free people of color and enslaved peoples who assisted the Confederacy in their war efforts were in a position without choice. Horace King, an enslaved person who bought his freedom before the Civil War, was already a well-known bridge builder and architect. King’s accomplishments led to his hiring by James H. Warner, a Confederate Naval engineer, to create a rolling mill to make iron plates for the ships. However, the choice of assisting in the naval yard was not a voluntary position and not one that he could have avoided [6]. Horace King and his sons contributed to the construction of the ironclads, although indirectly. King is credited with supplying treenails, oak beams, and oak knees. King’s work as a builder generated a legacy, and the stories of his role in constructing numerous buildings and bridges remain, even though these structures no longer exist in Columbus today. 

First African Baptist

Photo of the building of First African Baptist.

This Church was formed in 1840 by men who were still enslaved, yet they had the foresight, the tenacity, the drive, and the hope that were needed to produce a building that still stands tall and strong to this very day [7].


The red brick building of First African Baptist was built in 1915, but the history of the faith goes back even further. First African Baptist is one of the oldest churches in Columbus and continues to remain a beacon of faith in the community. Its long history includes the baptism of Ma Rainey and the membership of Dr. Thomas Brewer. 

On February 14, 1829, twelve men and women,  including an enslaved person named Joseph, came together to establish Ephesus Baptist Church of Christ. There is not much known about these people as individuals, but their efforts to create a church would begin a legacy of perseverance and faith. In the beginning, the Church was only its people as they had no building to call their own. The first members met in a small room of the local hardware store, Estes & Brother, located on Broad Street [8]. The congregation worshipped together within the same building, although the congregants remained segregated during the service. 

In 1840, white members split from the congregation to build First Baptist while black members were given the existing building for their own, marking the beginning of First African Baptist. Efforts to maintain a relationship between the two churches led to establishing a prayer breakfast between members in the 1990s. The breakfast continued until the recent COVID-19 pandemic made it unsafe. First African Baptist’s roots grow even deeper within the community, with several churches emerging and becoming integral parts of our community including Friendship Baptist Church, Metropolitan Baptist, and Mt. Tabor Baptist Church. 

St. James AME Church

Photo of the front of the Saint James A.M.E. Church located in Columbus, Georgia.
Photo of the front doors of the Saint A.M.E. Church located in Columbus, Georgia.

Originally known as the "Girard Colored Mission", St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church dates back to 1863. The current property was given to the African Methodist Church by the Georgia Legislature in 1875 [9]. It is the second oldest congregation of the denomination in Georgia. During the Civil Rights Movement, the large auditorium served as a primary meeting place for most of the large black assemblies in the city  [10]. According to information found, the doors to the church were created around 1860 by enslaved people at the Dudley Sash and Door Co. and donated from Ashbury United Methodist Church to St. James AME; they were restored in 1999 [11]. The church and its members continue to impact the area, as four schools in Columbus have been named for educators who were members of St. James AME- Spencer High School, Marshall Middle School, Davis Elementary School, and Hannan Elementary School [12]


[1]Golosinski, M. (2017, June 9). Architecture Reveals Rich Social History of People, Places. Northwestern. https://www.research.northwestern.edu/architecture-reveals-rich-social-history-of-people-places/

[2]Perkerson, M. F. (1952). White columns in Georgia. Rinehart.

[3]Stripling, G. (1980, July 30). Ghost haunting 1830s St. Elmo maintains legend. Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.

[4]Elliott, R. F., Vegotsky, A., Pavao-Zuckerman, B., Cummings, L. S., Puseman, K., & Cowie, S. (2005). Living in Columbus, Georgia 1828-1869: The lives of creeks, traders, enslaved African Americans, Mill operatives and others as told to archaeologists. City of Columbus, Georgia Department of Community and Economic Development.

[5]Kane, S. & Keeton, R. (1994, January 1). Fort Benning, the land and the people. (M. Pate, Illus.).U.S. Army Infantry Center.

[6]Gibbons, F. (2002). Horace King: Bridges to freedom. Crane Hill Publishers.

[7]First African Baptist. (n.d.). First African Baptist Church Columbus, Georgia 1840-1990. Columbus Public Library Vertical Files.

[8]Hyatt, R. (2017). Return to the water: The story of the First Baptist Church Columbus, Georgia. Nurturing Faith Inc.

[9]Grant, J. (1999, November 22). Black America series: Columbus, Georgia. Arcadia Publishing.

[10]Girard Colored Mission [Data set]. (1980, September 29). Georgia, Muscogee. Georgia Architectural and Historic Properties Survey-Inventory Form. 1980. Columbus, Muscogee County, Georgia: Lower Chattahoochee APDC. Historic Columbus Foundation. St. James (African Methodist Episcopal) Church. https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/16ef7040-1575-4686-b2da-08c1657a0016

[11]Gierer, Larry. (1999, February 27). Woman opens doors for church project. Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, pp. F-1.

[12]Welker, Carroll G. "The arts in the center: Historic." 1992. Columbus Public Library Vertical Files.