This attractive small church, established by free people of color, was built in the mid-nineteenth century, but its present Gothic Revival appearance dates mostly from the early twentieth century. In a renovation of 1903, Diboll and Owen replaced the pediment with a parapet ornamented with a blind arcade, added an openwork bell tower with a steeple in the center of the facade and pinnacles at its corners, and resurfaced the brick facade with stucco textured and scored to resemble rusticated masonry. The ornamental pressed metal ceiling inside was added at this time. The interior is a single large space with a polygonal-shaped apse and is illuminated by tall pointed-arched windows. Much of the stained glass, added c. 1891 with funds from the Louisiana Masonic organization, includes small painted medallions featuring Masonic symbols.
The church has played an important role in the city’s history. New Orleans police closed the church from 1858 to 1862 after the Reverend John M. Brown allowed slaves to attend—an act prohibited in the state charter issued to the church—and church members advocated an end to slavery. During the Civil War, the church was used as the headquarters for a company of African American Union soldiers under the command of Colonel James Lewis. In 1865, the first annual African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church Louisiana conference was held here. A century later, in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, St. James was a center for civil rights activities in New Orleans.