JILL NELSON, HOST: Today is Thursday, February 7th, 2019. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Jill Nelson.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a visit to a historic church in Philadelphia.
February is Black History Month, so we’ll feature stories about African Americans and their influence. Today, a visit to one of the oldest African-American churches in the country.
NELSON: How did this church bring freedom to African-Americans when U.S. laws, and even some other Christians, would not?
WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg brings us the story.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: The stone walls of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church stand just six blocks from Philadelphia’s famous Independence Hall. The church’s stained glass windows peer out on a quiet tree-lined street.
Margaret Jerrido is the church’s archivist and resident historical expert with a bad cough to prove it.
JERRIDO: My being an archivist, it has actually damaged my lungs, the mold and dust in the church.
She also attends church here every Sunday even though it’s not anywhere near where she lives.
JERRIDO: I’m from about 50 minutes away. And we have approximately 150 to 200 families. So, um, sometimes it can be a little crowded, which is nice.
Jerrido says congregants come to Mother Bethel from all over because this church is special.
JERRIDO: This is the mother church. This is the oldest continuously held land by African-Americans. We’ve always been on this site, even though we’ve had more than one building here. So here we go into the museum. It’s actually divided into three galleries.
A museum in the church’s basement holds some of Mother Bethel’s earliest artifacts.
JERRIDO: But this right here sort of tells the whole story of Richard Allen, the founder and the four buildings.
Mother Bethel’s story stretches all the way back to 1787—the same year the founders drafted the U.S. Constitution. Philadelphia was a growing center for free blacks, but they didn’t have their own churches. Instead they attended white churches where they had to sit in the balconies.
In 1787, a freed-slave and preacher named Richard Allen and his black friend Absalom Jones were praying downstairs in a white church.
JERRIDO: Well, the current pastor or minister says, you really need to get up and go upstairs now. And Richard Allen, Absalom Jones says, well, just give us a couple more minutes and then we’ll be happy to move. No, you have to go now. And they walked out and that’s when they decided to start their own church.
In 1791, Richard Allen bought land from a local businessman. The church we are standing in today is Mother Bethel’s fourth church building. But Allen’s first church here was much more humble.
JERRIDO: He actually hauled a blacksmith shop to this site in 1794.
For a decade Allen preached in the blacksmith shop from behind an anvil. The church continued to grow and in 1816, Richard Allen and other New England black ministers formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
JERRIDO: He founded this church, and he was part of the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. So this is the second gallery, which actually shows you Richard Allen’s pulpit that he used in the second church, um, and some of the Bibles and hymnals that were used. Aren’t they tiny?
Margaret Jerrido says Mother Bethel quickly became a place where African-Americans felt free to speak their minds.
JERRIDO: Richard Allen just saw the need for this. Church is a place where African-Americans feel comfortable. It’s like going to your community center or something, uh, and you feel safe here.
Mother Bethel embraced a community center role. Its leadership worked to secure educational opportunities for African-Americans, promoted temperance, and helped the poor.
And during a time when African-Americans couldn’t vote in civil elections, Mother Bethel gave them a voice in church elections.
Margaret Jerrido points to an original church ballot box.
JERRIDO: You have to remember that back in the day many people, African-Americans, could not read or write. So they would put pictures there, and then they have these little holes here where they would drop these little black or white balls. Black being no. White being yes. They would count the balls and say, you know, he won or didn’t win.
Mother Bethel also worked to abolish slavery and helped escaped slaves. Experts believe the church was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
JERRIDO: We’re almost 99 percent sure we were an Underground Railroad site.
Since Mother Bethel was located in Philadelphia’s black neighborhood, it was usually left alone. But because it helped escaped slaves, the church needed protection from bounty slave catchers. Some of the guns it kept on hand are in the museum.
JERRIDO: I think they were also protecting the slaves as well because, um, uh, other ethnic groups would come through here and looked for runaway slaves.
Even after slavery was officially abolished, Mother Bethel and the AME denomination helped former slaves. The AME’s church newspaper, the Christian Recorder, helped separated slave families reunite.
AUDIO: Just right here! Oh my!
Margaret Jerrido opens a closet and lugs out a 3-foot-long box containing original church newspapers from the 19th century. In one dated 1865, she reads a mother’s ad.
JERRIDO: John Pearson, son of Harris Pearson, when last seen by his mother, he was about 12 years of age and resided in Alexandria, Virginia, Fairfax County, from which place his mother was sold. Nine long and dreary years have passed away since his mother has seen him. She has made her way to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Any information concerning him will be thankfully received by his anxious mother.
Margaret says there are many stories of families finding each other via the paper.
JERRIDO: You can read further down in the paper. Sometimes it will say so and so found so and so.
Over the decades, Mother Bethel continued to be a symbol of freedom in the black community… hosting leaders like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Junior, and Rosa Parks. Margaret says the church continues to be that symbol for many African-Americans today.
JERRIDO: In 1791, an African-American starting something like this—I mean, wow, that was just unheard of. And for it to be continuing to today, it’s just, it’s just phenomenal.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Philadelphia.