The History of the Black Church

The ushers of the Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church circled around her, hugging her and joining arms in prayer. Sister Wilson had recently lost her son to the streets of Anacostia. She stood before the congregation and Rev. Dr. Michael E. Bell Sr., sheltering her face with her right hand as tears began to stream.

As she retreated back to her pew members of the church stood, greeting her with open arms. Some whispered words of hope.

Bell asked the congregants to stand if they knew anyone who has been a victim of the streets. Nearly 30 people stood on the floor level and balcony of the church.

“God help us heal our land, heal our people in Jesus’ name,” Bell said.

Since Colonial times, long before slavery was abolished in 1865, black churches like Allen Chapel have served as safe havens. The black church, according to Bell, developed as a result of the injustices that took place in the house of God.

“African-Americans were moved out of the sanctuary,” said Bell, 52, a third generation preacher. “White ushers asked them to move and make way for whites.”

Former slave Richard Allen, a Methodist preacher, was a deacon at St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia in the late 18th century.

In 1794 Allen opened the Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church , an all black church. Nearly two decades later, several regional congregational members formed the A.M.E. Church as the first independent black denomination. Allen was the bishop.

The seven major historically black denominations include the African Methodist Episcopal Church; the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; the National Baptist Convention, U. S. A., Incorporated; the National Baptist Convention of America, Unincorporated; the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the Church of God in Christ.

During the slavery era, the church served as a refuge for runaway slaves.

“It was the place where the slaves and the free slaves could gather,” said Rev. Carolyn Scales, 60, who is a part of the ministerial staff at the Allen Chapel. “You work all week, and you have that one day where you can come together to fellowship, to sing, to pray, a family gathering. It was the place to go for those that believed in the Lord. Not many other places they could go.”

Gail Lowe, Ph.D, the historian at the Smithsonian Institution Anacostia Community Museum, said the black church played a major role in the health care, education and cultural affairs of the black community similar to the role it has today.

“Religious institutions have had to address the social and political ills that human beings face,” Lowe said. “Congregations have been forthright in caring for the community of the faithful. While at Allen Chapel, folk may have stood up because they have lost children or relatives to crime and the violence of crime. In the 1850s, folk may have stood up because families were broken up and family members were sold off from one plantation to another, or overseers were too quick to whip and the church was there to comfort, to console, to educate and to support.”

Scales added that many slaves learned to read and write in the church.

“My great-grandmother (a former slave) learned to read by reading the bible,” Scales said. “They memorized scriptures and then they would go through the Bible to find the words. It was place where you could practice your gift and worship.”

The close of the Reconstruction era, after the Eric Foner in his book “Give Me Liberty: An American History, Second Edition.”

Methodists and Baptists had the largest followings. Foner adds that “The black church played a central role in the black community. It was a place of worship. It housed schools, social events and political gatherings. Black ministers played a major role in politics.” Nearly 250 ministers held public office during Reconstruction.

Bell said the black church has played a vital role in allowing many African-American singers, entertainers, businessmen and women, and activists “to exercise their gifts.”

“The church gave people the courage to speak and talk,” he said. “Go back to any prominent individuals, and you can trace their roots in the black church.

Nat King Cole was an African-American musician who was first recognized as a leading jazz pianist. His father was a Baptist minister in Chicago and it was in the church where Cole first learned to play an instrument, the organ.

Ushers at the Allen Chapel handed out a 10-page booklet before the service, that included a schedule of events, announcements, a “Did you know?” section and a Black History Month Famous Firsts Crossword puzzle.

Down, No.6 read, “First African-American with his own network radio show – The Nat King Cole Show.” Below was a rectangular box filled with prominent names to choose from. The correct answer was Nat King Cole. Cole was also the father of singer Natalie Cole, an award winning singer and song-writer.

Across, No. 10 read, “First African-American millionaire – invented black hair care products.” The correct choice was Madam C.J. Walker.

Walker joined St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Louis, which helped her to develop speaking, social and managerial skills.

Famous musician and Washingtonian Marvin Gaye also known as the “Prince of Soul” sang and played instruments in the choir of the House of God where his father was a minister.

Frederick Douglass one of the most prominent leaders of the abolitionist movement, resided in Southeast Washington and was an ordained minister at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

Bell said that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement was born out of the church. King was the son of Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. He became a Baptist minister, a renowned leader and activist during the civil rights era.

Hazel Delores Taylor, 79, a member of the Allen Chapel described those times as hard because of the discrimination blacks often faced.

“They had to do things the best they could,” Taylor said. “As far as the church, we just had to lean on each other.”

Lowe said it is important to recognize the black church as having had a major impact on black history.

“It is important for us to know who we are where we’ve come from,” Lowe said. “There are many of us who wouldn’t have had enough money, clothes or enough for the $150 chemistry book or wouldn’t have made it to or through college without the support of the church, without the scholarship from the Christian Education Society from the church. Many wouldn’t have found an outlet for their gifts and talents.”

It was the first Sunday and Bell told the congregation to turn to Matthew 25: 40-31. “Neighbor, the Lord is on your side,” he said. He stressed the importance of helping others, especially those less fortunate.

“The black church in any community where it resides should be a light of illumination to give people direction for their future and for their lives,” Bell said. “Church should also be a place of encouragement and a place of refuge, a safe place. Allen has a responsibility to address some of the plethora of issues that are facing Ward 8, here in Anacostia, here in Southeast D.C.”

Bell pointed out Anacostia’s high rate of illiteracy, the dropouts and incarceration.

According to a report by the Human Rights Watch, black men make up 60 percent of the District’s population and 92 percent of the incarcerated population. A report by the Justice Policy Institute shows that most of the violent crimes occur in police districts 5,6 and 7. The latter two districts are located in southeast and the first in northeast.

A report by the National Association to Restore Pride in America’s Capital reveals that the high school dropout rate is nearly 40 percent in Anacostia.

“In order to help somebody else you have to have sensitivity,” Bell said. “We forget that we should suffer sometimes for somebody else.”

The Sanctuary Choir and the Voices of Praise brought people to their feet, with upbeat, clap-your-hands, stomp-your-feet music.

“Oh yes,” shouted an older female usher dressed in all white as she bopped her head and raised her right hand to the ceiling.

Bell screamed “glory, glory, glory,” and the congregation shouted “glory, glory, glory.”