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The Black Church

boston abounds in historic Black churches. The Black Ecumenical Commission of Massachusetts lists some eighty such churches.
An excellent description of ten major Black churches can be found in Robert C. Hayden's: Faith, Culture and Leadership: A History of the Black Church of Boston (1983).

Of course there is no single or unified Black church-rather, the phrase is meant to represent a spectrum of religious institutions comprising an elusive whole.
The majority of Black Bostonians in the early twentieth century belong to the Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, Episcopal, and Congregational denominations. Of the 150 - 200 Black churches operating today, the largest number are Pentecostal, Holiness, and independent.

Taken together, the Black churches constitute, in Hayden's words,

"the only continuous cultural and self-controlled institution that Blacks in Boston and the nation have been able to maintain as their own from slavery to the present."

Strong in spirituality and numbers, the Black church has also been a moral force at the center of the struggle for equality and civil rights. The worship style in these churches has tended to be staid, giving rise to the expression "the frozen chosen" in reference to Black Bostonian churches.

However, in those houses of worship with strong ties to the American South, one can find testifying and charisma.

  1. The African Meeting House, built on Smith Court on Beacon Hill in 1805, now the Museum of Afro-American History, on the Black Heritage Trail, is the site of the First African Baptist Church (popularly known as "The Abolitionist Church), organized in 1805, at the heart of what was Boston's small Black community until the 1890s.
  2. Peoples Baptist Church (1805 and 1915) traces its roots directly back to the African Meeting House church.
    At a time of Black migration-amid competition for housing from European immigrants-from Beacon Hill into the South End, the Meeting House was sold to a Jewish congregation, and members purchased a building at Camden and Tremont Streets in lower Roxbury.
    It became Peoples Baptist after an interlude when it was called St. Paul's. It is the oldest church historically connected to the first church among Black residents, and the seventh oldest Black church in the United States, using the 1805 date.
    (129 Camden Street, South End. 617-267-4556)
  3. Union United Methodist Church (1818), began on Beacon Hill, and moved to its present Columbus Avenue in the South End.
    Many of its members originally came from North Carolina.
    ( 485 Columbus Ave., South End, 617-536-0872)
  4. Charles Street A.M.E. [Bethel Society] Church (1833) now stands at the corner of Warren St. and Elm Hill Avenue in Roxbury. (see image in upper right of this page)
    Like the First African Baptist, it played a role in the Abolition era, hosting many stirring anti-slavery meetings.
    This prominent church became the last Black institution to leave Beacon Hill and relocate in Roxbury when in 1939 it left its home on the corner of Charles Street and Mount Vernon on Beacon Hill.
    Its pastor, the Reverend Ralph Epps, described it in the 1920s as having "built up the reputation of being a church of the 'Black elite.' Some were in government jobs, others had been teachers, waiters at the Parker House, and the old Young's Hotel. A few were professionals-doctors and lawyers."
    Epps himself was a Post Office retiree. "When I started in the Post Office in 1937," he quipped, "I became acceptable."
    ( 551 Warren St., Roxbury, 617-442-7770) ; see the church website.
  5. The Columbus Avenue A.M.E. Zion (1838) met first at a private home on Southac (Phillips) Street and various other locations on Beacon Hill.
    In 1903 it dedicated its new sanctuary in what was formerly Temple Adath Israel. Membership lists and U.S. Census records show that half of the 254 members were born in the South.
    This church was the site, just one month after the move to its new site of the famous Boston Riot, in which William Monroe Trotter, editor of the Boston Guardian, confronted Booker T. Washington in a verbal battle that ended with Trotter's arrest and jailing.
    ( 600 Columbus Ave., Roxbury, 617-266-2758)
  6. Twelfth Baptist Church, "the Second African Meeting House," began in 1840, with 46 members who left the original (1805) Meeting House.
    Like the first African Meeting House it served the anti-slavery cause and provided spiritual guidance to Boston's free Black and fugitive slaves. One of its pastors was the eminent Rev. Leonard A. Grimes, abolitionist. The rapid exodus of African Americans from Beacon Hill led to the church's move to lower Roxbury, where in 1958 it ultimately settled on Warren Avenue. At this church Martin Luther King, while a student at Boston University's School of Theology, preached on a monthly basis. He also met his future wife, Coretta Scott, at Twelfth Baptist.
    ( 150 Warren Street, Roxbury, 617-442-7855); see the church website.
  7. Ebenezer Baptist Church (1871) was founded by Black people who came to Boston from Virginia and settled in the lower South End.
    At first they met in the kitchen of a Mrs. Martha Jones.
    Their first pastor was Peter Randolph, a freed slave from Virginia who wrote an autobiography, From Slave Cabin to Pulpit. I
    n 1887 Ebenezer established itself at its present location at 157 West Springfield Street. The church thrived, especially under the37-year leadership of Rev. William Ravenell.
    ( 157 W. Springfield St., Roxbury, 617-262-7739)
  8. St. Mark Congregational Church (1895) started out with the name of William Lloyd Garrison Memorial (Congregational) Church, then changed to St. Mark.

    Its development saw many fits and starts: it was located first at 1783 Washington Street, then until 1919 at 1042 Tremont Street in Roxbury.
    After fund-raising for nearly twenty years, in 1919 it purchased a house at 533 Massachusetts Avenue in the South End, but decided to follow the continued movement of the community from the South End and lower Roxbury to upper Roxbury.
    The congregation bought a church from The Quaker Fellowship at Townsend Street and Humboldt Avenue, where they continue to flourish today.

    Under the leadership of the Reverend Samuel Leroy Laviscount, St. Mark experienced a spiritual, social and economic awakening. During the 1930s it contributed to the development of Roxbury's social services, starting a settlement house of their own.

    After grappling with the threats of urbal renewal in the 1960s, St. Mark had to rebuild its sanctuary. The congregation also took up the challenge of building new housing for moderate-income tenants.
    Senator Edward Brooke, a church member, was the keynote speaker at a 1978 testimony to the 90-year old Reverend Laviscount.
    (200 Townsend Street, Roxbury, 617-442-0481)
  9. The Church of Saint Augustine and Saint Martin (1884, 1899, 1908).

    This High Episcopalian Church was established by the coming together of St. Augustine (1884) of the West End and the St. Martin Mission of Roxbury, organized in 1899.
    As a mission, St. Augustine was started "for the benefit of the colored people of Boston."
    (31 Lenox Street, South End, 617-442-6395)
  10. St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church (1913) is the first church to be built by Black people in Roxbury.

    It was started by immigrants from the West Indies-from Jamaica, Barbados and some of the smaller islands--who arrived in Boston during the early years of the 1900s.
    This church played a role in arranging for and furthering this wave of immigrants. These individuals did not want to join the High Episcopal St. Augustine, and so they created their own church. In 1911 they chose the name St. Cyprian, for the Black bishop of Carthage, North African, in the second century.
    They purchased a lot on the corner of Tremont and Walpole Streets in Roxbury and dedicated their new church in 1924.
    ( 1073 Tremont St., Roxbury, 617-427-6175)

The Catholic Church has also attracted many Black parishioners.

Historian John Daniels noted nearly a century ago that

"the Roman Catholics lay claim to about one thousand members of the Negro race in Greater Boston. The majority of these are immigrants or children of immigrants from the West Indies; others became of this faith through receiving their education in Catholic schools; still others are descendants of slaves of Catholic masters; and the remainder are converts in the ordinary course. . .[T]he largest single group of them have gone to the Cathedral in the lower South End."
                  (In Freedom's Birthplace: A Study of the Boston Negroes, 1914, 229).

Other avenues of religious expression among Black Bostonians include Islam, Pentecostal churches, Seventh Day Adventist, and membership in an array of "white" churches.