I just saw a flier promoting a fundraiser for the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church today. It's an annual affair where they barbecue ribs and chicken and sell those tasty offerings to the public from their outside parking lot on Liberty Street in Meadville. It got me to thinking about this church and its history and, perhaps, its future.
The location at 961 Liberty St. has been designated as an historic site and for good reason. The church was constructed on the site once occupied by Richard Henderson, who escaped slavery from Maryland and would later provide shelter for 500 or more slaves escaping the Southern slave holders.
Henderson's house was a station on the famous Underground Railroad that provided safe passage from the South to Meadville through Erie, Buffalo, Rochester, N.Y., and finally into Canada and freedom. We all know the price slavery exacted on the slaves and the subsequent blood letting in the Civil War.
That this building was in the forefront of the liberation of an entire generation of human beings before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation is an interesting and comforting thought. The role of Henderson's house in the Underground Railroad would be fitting enough, but Bethel has been a source of inspiration and development for African-Americans for well over a century.
The role of “black” churches in America has been well documented. They nourished the souls of people who may have been excluded from “white” churches. That kind of discrimination by churches is a brutal irony and hypocrisy. In any event, the AME churches and other "black" churches stepped up and ministered to their flock. Additionally, the churches were a source of a deep sense of community and socialization for their parishioners. The church became, in many instances, more than a Sunday-only destination and was a vigorous spokesman for its members in many matters, including the ugliness of state-supported segregation known as the Jim Crow laws.
It makes perfect sense that the Rev. Martin Luther King, pastor of a “black” church in Atlanta, would rise to national stature as a leader of the black civil rights movement. This national role was an extension of his local leadership that he applied to the entire country.
It also was no surprise that racists would attack the local church where African-Americans attended. The buildings were symbolic of “black” solidarity and striving for justice and equality. Hence, the burning and destruction of these buildings that had become more than just buildings and their subsequent reconstruction; they were the soul of their parishioners in many different ways. Fortunately, we hope, those times are behind us and integration of all people seems to be taking hold.
“White” churches now openly welcome people regardless of color and this, in some instances, has had an effect on the traditional African-American churches. The integration has not gone the other way and white people haven't joined the African-American congregations to the level of integration the other way. Additionally, mainstream churches of all description have been suffering from the decrease in membership and some of the traditional “black” churches have been victim of this as well.
Let's hope the Bethel AME Church prospers in membership and mission and while were at it, let's taste some very good barbecue. Oh by the way, Fred Douglass IV has provided the barbecue sauce and has assured me that there is nothing like it on this side of heaven. For a church barbecue, I think we can expect that.
Gary DeSantis is a Meadville resident and author of a book titled “The 6th Floor.”
You can go
Bethel AME Church, 961 Liberty St., holds a barbecue ribs or chicken dinner, featuring Wass-Dis Here sauce by Frederick Douglass IV, today from 11 a.m. until sold out. Eat-in or pre-order by calling (412) 651-2281.