Aunt Martha Downs

By Robert F. Darden

The World of Waco’s Forgotten Mother Teresa

When Lane and Amy Murphy first entered St. James United Methodist Church at Second St. and Clay Ave. downtown in 2016, Lane said he was overwhelmed — first by the beauty of the sanctuary, then by the sheer press of history inside those walls.

The church, whose African American congregation dates back to the early 1870s, was for sale. Urban renewal, the building of Interstate 35 and changing population patterns had reduced the once-thriving membership from 650 to a couple of dozen parishioners. And the Murphys, aware that St. James’ land was even more valuable than the magnificent — if distressed — structure on the property, bought the church on faith to preserve it from a developer’s bulldozer.

Eight years later, St. James is a quiet respite amid the cacophony of the downtown building boom and the Murphys continue their valiant struggle to save and preserve something precious.

The church membership’s voluminous records go back more than 80 years and slowly revealed a host of distant voices and heroes who persevered through some of the most racist, most dangerous times in history. Which is how Lane encountered “Aunt” Martha Downs, beloved and respected by Black and white alike at a time when white-sheeted Klansman contemptuously paraded through downtown Waco.

The Murphys have not been able to locate photographs of Downs, nor her popular restaurant on the downtown square. But the fragmentary surviving record paints at tantalizing portrait of the woman Lane calls an “angel of mercy.”

Born circa 1841 an enslaved person in Mississippi, Downs traveled to Waco after the Civil War. Historian T. Bradford Willis described her a “philanthropist and a nurse” and said she lived in a “cottage a half block east of the public square.” She had two sons, Walter and James, and — at some point — opened a restaurant on the square. Even the name of the restaurant is unclear.

What is clear is that Martha Downs was a remarkable woman. The Texas Collection’s digital archives of pre-1900 Waco newspapers reveal precious few references to African Americans. And yet, Downs’ reputation for compassion and unconditional love finds its way onto the printed page time and again.

An article from March 1891 tells the heart-breaking story of Lizzie McBride, a household servant in West, Texas, impregnated by a “young man, under promise of marriage,” who promptly abandoned her. Lizzie was “driven out” by her parents and shunned by her community and had the child delivered by an African American midwife, “Mammy” Burton. Within a month, the mother and daughter were homeless and “when all doors were barred to her,” the newspaper reports, “Aunt Martha Downs gave her shelter and food.”

In the often condescendingly racist language of the day, “The Waco Daily News” says that “this excellent colored woman, who abounds in charities” took Lizzie in. The newspaper even proposed that Waco citizens hold a “benefit” for Downs in honor of “this and similar acts of kindness to white people in distress.”

Other articles tell how Aunt Martha for decades daily took food to the inmates — Black and white — in the city prison, just off the downtown square. Her restaurant, which is “liberally patronized by white people,” was described as the domain of Aunt Martha, whose “charity is proverbial.”
Downs’ life and works are celebrated in still another clipping from the era:

“In the tempest she moves and where want reigns, dwells Aunt Martha, and when relief is needed, she gives it freely to the extent of her power. In the infinite hereafter when the souls are judged there will be many a bright mark for this colored woman, whose charities stand at the limit of her means, who never refused comfort, who sought always the neglected, and ministered devotedly to those in extremity.”

One of the most fascinating exchanges occurred when the short-lived “Day” newspaper told of a Black man with a serious knife wound who staggered into Downs’ restaurant. The white author of the article off-handedly refers to her restaurant as a “low dive.”

Almost immediately, Downs responded, asking the white-owned “The Waco Daily News” to publish her eloquent letter of rebuttal. It is a testament to the esteem the community held for this woman that the newspaper complied:

“This is a libel on my place of business. There are many witnesses, among them the police of the city, who will attest to the fact that my place of business is always orderly and that I will not allow disorderly conduct on my premises. ‘The Day’s’ remarks are uncalled for, unjust, untrue and libelous.”

An eye-witness account of the event in “The Daily News” staunchly agreed with Downs and noted that not only had the man, who was “penniless and friendless” gone to her establishment because of Downs’ nursing skills, her sons even paid for a doctor to attend him — a total stranger.

Aunt Martha Downs died on October 4, 1895. Her obituary was featured in a number of Texas newspapers, including those in Waco, Galveston and Bryan-College Station. This alone is remarkable, given the repressive Jim Crow laws and horrific treatment of African Americans in the state at the time. And yet, here it is:

“Aunt Martha Downs of Waco is dead. She was the most popular Negro woman in central Texas. In slavery, she was famous for her skill with sick people. Since the war, she has been in steady demand as a nurse; her skill was considered marvelous. She rarely accepted renumeration for her work, and most of her earnings she gave away in relief to the poor, irrespective of race. Her favorite work was cooking food from her own supplies and taking it around to invalid white people. She regarded the prisoners in the county jail as having a special claim upon her. Every day for more than twenty years she has visited the jail with food and delicacies, as long as she was able to walk.”

Another article in the “Waco Morning News” reported that she died in her cottage.

Murphy notes that the few blocks on the downtown side of the Brazos River that encompassed her home, church and restaurant were, essentially, her entire world. And yet, the newspaper accounts state that more than 2,000 Black and white people attended the funeral at St. James United Methodist Church at a time when, Murphy adds, Waco’s total population was about 25,000.

Downs was buried in Waco’s original First Street Cemetery, though Willis’ research indicates that the marker was reported lost or moved when a survey of the cemetery was conducted in 1962.

Sons Walter and James Downs for many years operated the popular “Two Brothers” saloon on Waco’s downtown square. Walter was a violinist and singer who often performed for well-to-do white citizens.

The Murphys have dedicated a small section of the sanctuary to the yellowed clippings about Martha Downs and other notable members of the venerable old church. And they continue their heroic efforts to preserve their beloved St. James.

Why Aunt Martha?

“She viewed no one as an ‘other,’” Murphy told me. “She embraced them all so faithfully and wholeheartedly. This was because of her faith and how she led an authentic life. It appears she truly served as the hands and feet of Jesus.

“This spirit of selflessness and kindness is incredibly stirring to me. Those are the foundation and building blocks of St. James in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s and that remains the soul of the building at Second and Clay today.”

Lane called Aunt Martha Downs — an African American woman whose face we’ll probably never see and even whose grave is forever lost to us — Waco’s “Mother Teresa.”

“Martha Downs’ intentional lifestyle of seeking unity and understanding, serving and honoring others, living in true community, truly knowing each other and doing life together even across the lines that typically divide us, that is a legacy we want to continue.”