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Bethel AME marks 200th birthday

By Craig Smith
Monday, June 2, 2008 

Katie Everette Johnson’s pastor asked her to accompany him to a meeting with then-Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence because she took meticulous notes.It was a difficult assignment, recalled Johnson, now 85, of Schenley Heights.

To make way for the Civic Arena, Lawrence said, the city would have to tear down the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Hill District, where Johnson had attended services for 14 years.

“Why our church?” she said, recalling the emotions of that meeting.

The Rev. John D. Bright, pastor, pleaded in vain to save the historic church, Johnson said. The building was razed in 1956.Bethel AME Church, which served as a station for the Underground Railroad, will celebrate its 200th birthday next week.

The birthday means a lot to the congregation, said the Rev. Nathaniel Colvin, pastor. Many remember the pain of losing their church to the wrecking ball, he said. Bethel AME will sponsor a week’s worth of events beginning Sunday.

“When you talk about losing a building, a church building, it’s like losing a family home,” Colvin said.

Bethel was the first African Methodist Episcopal Church west of the Allegheny Mountains and is the oldest black congregation in the city. Its roots were planted in 1808 in a house on Front Street, Downtown.

Chartered in 1818, the church would be located in a number of buildings over the next two centuries. Bethel started the area’s first school for black children in 1831 and was host for the state’s first civil rights convention in 1841.

“The African-American church, particularly a church like Bethel AME is like the glue that holds the soul of the community together: offering hope and the sobering truth of the challenges of putting life together in a world like ours today,” said Sarah L McMillen, assistant professor of sociology at Duquesne University.

The church served as one of the main stations of the Underground Railroad, a secret network that helped fugitive slaves reach sanctuary in free states or Canada years before slavery was abolished in the United States.

“We are very proud to know the African Methodist Episcopal Church has been in the community this long. It has endured the days of slavery and other hardships,” said the Rev. Robert Vaughn Webster, bishop of Bethel AME’s 3rd District, which includes Ohio, West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania.

Many families stuck with the church, one of the oldest in the district, through its moves. Bethel’s oldest member is 107 years old.

“The fact that this congregation has continued services for 200 years in several church buildings in several locations indicates the continuity of the African-American culture in Pittsburgh, its deep roots and its continuing new generations,” said Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.



Craig Smith can be reached at or 412-380-5646.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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