Filed Under Worship

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

Resilience and Revitalization in the Hill

An institution focused on faith, service, and activism, Bethel AME is a testament to the enduring spirit of Pittsburgh's Black community.

The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh recently signed a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team to recuperate its historic land. But why was this deal necessary? Under a program known as "urban renewal" in the 1950s, Pittsburgh city leaders ordered Bethel AME and many other historic buildings to be demolished to make way for the Civic Arena. Today, Bethel fights for its return to the neighborhood it called home. Yet this glimpse only tells a fraction of the churchís story. To truly understand its modern context, you need to understand the church's powerful history spanning the 1800s and 1900s. Through its social and spiritual history, Bethel AME Church greatly impacted the Lower Hill neighborhood and its African American community.

In the nineteenth century, Bethel played a vigorous role in black civil rights. Originally known as the "African Church," black residents created it in 1808 as a non-denominational church to support their small racial community. The church's recruitment quickly expanded as more black Americans arrived in Pennsylvania, since the state offered a safe haven for escaped slaves. In order to properly organize their membership, the church officially affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1818. The AME Church formed as a national anti-slavery organization: the church supported escaping slaves in the Underground Railroad, opposed the African colonization movement, and bolstered black suffrage and education.

Through these political goals, Bethel AME in Pittsburgh joined a united movement dedicated to black civil rights, and actively participated in that movement. Under the leadership of Reverend Lewis Woodson, the Pittsburgh church itself became a stop on the Underground Railroad to help escaping slaves. In short order, Reverend Woodson led the church to form the city's first school for black children in 1831. Additionally, as the movement expanded throughout Pennsylvania, Bethel AME hosted the state's civil rights convention in 1841.

During the turbulence of Reconstruction, the period when the triumphant Union started rebuilding the Southern economy, the national AME Church sent missionaries to help protect the rights of the newly freed African Americans of the South. Black Pittsburgh residents regularly participated in this missionary work during Bethel's long history. One Pittsburgh Courier article proudly cites the service history of the city's men and women, including local missionary president Harriet White and "young people's department" director Elsie Meeks as recently as 1953.

The national AME Church also pushed for black representation and justice in American history, as a significant actor in the 1876 centennial celebrations. Representatives like Christian Recorder editor Benjamin Tucker Tanner advocated for events celebrating black history, including memorials of African American military service, religious liberty, and new monuments to black spiritual leaders like African Methodist founder Richard Allen.

Within this coalition, Bethel AME remained a powerful force for black civil rights in Pittsburgh. Reverend J. W. Gazaway, pastor of Bethel AME, provides a perfect example of black leadership in the city. In 1898, Gazaway spoke out against the trend of lynching black men, and served his community as a spiritual advisor to black Americans imprisoned in an unfair criminal justice system. Through its efforts at black education, suffrage, civil rights, and spiritual support, the leaders of Bethel AME played a key role in black civil rights in the 1800s.

Moving into the twentieth century, the national AME organization faced new challenges affecting the Pittsburgh church. Over two decades, several black denominations splintered into different factions with disparate goals, and Pittsburgh remained in the center of this debate. Bethel AME hosted a conference for these denominations to unite in common interests and proposed the Pittsburgh Plan for unification in 1927. The Colored Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal, and African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches all wanted an equal balance of leadership and structure, to ensure no one denomination would absorb the others in the potential merger. While these factions ultimately remained separate, this illustrates another example of Bethel's authority on the national stage, which continues through the modern civil rights movement.

Beyond its wide range of influence, Bethel has provided a welcoming respite to generations of African Americans in Pittsburgh. By 1962, Reverend J. G. Harris found that "the vineyard is richer" as the pews of his church filled with more educated, active members. Pittsburgh Courier staff writer Theodore Graham reported this steadily growing church membership owed its success to the caring involvement of church leaders in all facets of life, including "housing, labor, community problems, and politics." With such passion for advocacy, Bethel church members know their leaders will speak out to protect their interests.

Bethel also stands strong as an institution that feels like a second home to its members.

Bethel has provided a welcoming respite to generations of African Americans in Pittsburgh.
In addition to weekly Sunday services and Wednesday Bible Study and Church School groups, churchgoers have always joined together to celebrate their house of faith. Over decades, members organize anniversary celebrations of the churchís founding, including banquets where key community leaders remember Bethel's role in their lives. These reverent speeches come from influential men and women, such as Judge John Drew of the Common Pleas Court in 1953. During a report on one well-attended banquet, Courier religious editor Bert Logan examined the history of Bethel's charitable entrepreneurs, highlighting a spirit of caring philanthropy. Bethel AME Church acted as a vibrant part of life in the Lower Hill.

Yet in the 1950s, the church's neighborhood came under attack. Relying on environmental language of urban "blight" or a decaying landscape, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh pursued a program of "urban renewal" and demolished the historically black Lower Hill District. This trend occurred across American cities of the postwar era and aimed to remove poor, declining, and largely minority neighborhoods and replace them with new commercial development. More than 8,000 residents were evicted from the Lower Hill. After decades of civil rights activism to restore their community, black Pittsburgh residents established major breakthroughs.

Twenty-first century activism has produced a legacy of community engagement, including community benefits agreements to guarantee black residents will have a say in projects involving economic development. Within this activism, Bethel AME persists as a community leader, offering a space for change.

In April 2023, a great deal of the Pittsburgh press focused on Bethel's story. Through a comprehensive agreement between the Pittsburgh Penguins legal team and the leaders of Bethel AME, new plans are underway to create new housing, a childcare facility, and a commercial zone in the Lower Hill. These public relations initiatives demonstrate how Bethel endures as a vital authority in the memory of Pittsburgh's black community. Despite the shifting physical locations of the Bethel AME Church in Pittsburgh, it has remained an eminent source of strength in the Hill community for over two centuries. The spiritual and social power of this house of faith transcends place and time.

Images

Bethel A.M.E. Church on 1206 Wylie Avenue, now torn down This structure was the home of Bethel A.M.E. church from 1906-1957, when it was demolished as part of the Lower Hill redevelopment project. Source: Teenie Harris Photograph Collection, 1920-1970, Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1955

Location

2720 Webster Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Metadata

https://www.bethelpittsburgh.org/
Joseph Naughton, “Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” Hill District Digital History, accessed June 17, 2024, https://hillhistory.org/items/show/9.