Life & Culture

Black Churches in Rondo Led the Way

At one time, or another, African American churches were the center of life in community. The formation of St. James AME Church, Pilgrim Baptist Church and St. Peter Claver, created a harbor for African Americans migrating to St. Paul from other cities.

When St. Paul became a railroad cener, newcomers arrived in the city, desperately seeking two things: a job and a place to stay. Where did they find both? The churches

The first places all were directed to were to the churches. While there are now, more churches than you can count in the Twin Cities that provide a safe haven to all, there were just three that led the way.

St. James African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church’s (on Dale and Central Avenues) origins can be traced back to the early 1870s. The Indiana Conference of AME sent Thomas Wise from Chicago to organize a church in the city. This was the first AME congregation formed in the city.

At first, the African American community did not support Wise’s efforts of starting another church. Many felt that there were not enough people and resources to support two churches in the community. In 1876, 25 people formally started St. James.

To meet the needs of Blacks migrating to the city seeking economic opportunity, St. James distributed housing and job information during their men’s bible classes. Additionally, St. ames published a paper, the Helper, that listed employment opportunities.

Rev Benjamin Moore and his wife, Cora, ¬†took charge of the church in 1938. During their thirteen fruitful years, Rev. Moore accomplished a great deal – the building of the modern edifice which is still in use today; resuscitation of the NAACP; organization of the Black Ministerial Alliance and he sat on the Governor’s Ecumenical Council. Quite a feat , considering it was occurred during the World War II.

Robert Hickman, the founder of Pilgrim Baptist Church (on Grotto and Central Avenues), was a courageous leader. Hickman, as a slave, could read and write and he was licensed to preach in the church. Secretly, he organized a colition of fellow slaves, and lead them to St. Paul – and to freedom.

Miraculously, the group traveled up the Mississippi River, by raft, in the dead of night. Some say, there were helped by Union soldiers, and some say there were towed to St. Paul by a steamboat. However, Hickman’s group was the largest group of African American to arrive in St. Paul during the late 1880s. and decided to use the name for the church that they shortly after their arrival.

They first meet for prayer in different homes. In 1863, they succeeded in renting the lodge room of a temperance society. Hickman was not an ordained minister, and this prevented them from becoming a formal congregation. However, he became ordained in 1877 and become pastor. He remained pastor if the church until death in 1900.

For many, the most memorable minsiter of Pilgrim was Rev. Floyd Massey, who led the congregation from 1944- 1965, when he moved to Compton, CA, to pastor Macedonia Baptist Church in the Watts community. In 2013, Pilgrim celebrated it 100th anniversary.

In 1880s, a Catholic mission as established for African Americans in St. Paul by Archbishop John Ireland. It was developed into the St. Peter Claver Church. From this institution, a prominent civil rights activist emerged – the first, and only Black priest to be ordained by the archdiocese of Minnesota, an one of the first Black priests in the nation. The church was orginally located on Farrington and Aurora Avenues before moving to its current location on Oxford and St. Anthony streets.

Archbishop Ireland was a very prophetic man who stated in 1889, ” We owe a fearful debt to the Black man. We must admit the injustices of slavery, and hurry to bury the past. All the Black man wants is fair play – given that , they will take of themselves.”

Today, St. Peter still remains a vital institution in the community. They have re-opened their school, which serve African American student.




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