Author: Grace Shackman
The congregation of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church celebrated for two days in 1896, after finishing the church at 632 North Fourth Avenue that they had been working on for five years. Built of brick with a stately tower, beautiful stained glass windows, and intricate woodwork, the church was worth the wait.
On Sunday, April 5, 1896, Bethel held three services--morning, afternoon, and evening. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, who had laid the building’s cornerstone, served as guest preacher. Turner, then residing in Atlanta, Georgia, had been the first black chaplain in the U.S. Army, thanks to an appointment from Abraham Lincoln. Other guest preachers included Rev. Mrs. G. T. Thurman of Jackson; Rev. James Barksdale, pastor of Ypsilanti’s AME congregation; and, representing the white Methodists, Rev. Camden Cobern of Ann Arbor’s First Methodist Church. The celebration continued the next day with a dedicatory concert and recitations by four elocutionists. “Altogether it was an occasion which will long be remembered by the members of the A. M. E. church,” reported the Ann Arbor Argus.
Building the substantial church was a stretch for a congregation that numbered about forty at the time of the dedication. Bethel AME was an offshoot of Ann Arbor’s first black church, the “Union Church,” founded in 1855. Members built a small Greek Revival place of worship at what is now 504 High Street (with a porch added, it is today a very small private residence), but just two years later, some split off to form Bethel AME. The other Union Church members went on to organize another historic black church, Second Baptist.
The AME Church, the first independent black church in the United States, was founded in 1816 by Richard Allen. Born a slave, Allen saved his earnings to buy his freedom. He became an ordained minister and was hired by a Methodist church in Philadelphia to preach the early morning and early evening services. But when his preaching began attracting blacks to the congregation, some of the white members were displeased. Their objections led Allen and his black congregants to leave and found a church of their own.
The church they left was called “Methodist” for its form of worship and “Episcopal” because it was organized under bishops. Allen carried both terms over at his new congregation, and added “African” after the heritage of its founders.
Ann Arbor’s AME congregation was founded by John Wesley Brooks, who was, like Allen, a former slave. Born in Maryland in 1798, Brooks was sold to a New York resident when he was still a child. Slaves in New York at the time were supposed to be freed when they reached age twenty-eight, but Brooks’s owner ignored the rule. When Brooks was thirty, a lawyer named John Spencer successfully argued Brooks’s case and won his freedom.
Brooks stayed in New York another year as Spencer’s employee and moved to Ann Arbor in 1829, just five years after the town was founded. He paid $100 for eighty acres in Pittsfield Township, where he farmed for twenty-five years. He moved back into town, to a house on North Main, at about the same time the Union Church was being organized.
Bearing the same names as John Wesley, the eighteenth-century founder of Methodism, Brooks must have been born into a Methodist family. The biographical sketch of him in the 1881 Charles C. Chapman county history says, “Mr. Brooks experienced religion at the age of thirteen, and has been a member of the M.E. [Methodist Episcopal] church for 70 years. He was ordained to preach by Rev. Swift, and for five years after his arrival in Michigan was engaged in the missionary work.” Just when Brooks joined the AME Church is not known, but since he was eighteen and living in the East when Allen founded his church, it is likely that Brooks was involved in it before coming to Michigan.
Bethel AME’s church history says that for some time before 1865, the congregation shared worship space with the Quakers at State and Lawrence. It was a natural pairing, because local Quakers had helped escaped slaves on their way to Canada during the days of the Underground Railroad. In its early years, Bethel also worshipped in a small cottage that Brooks owned on the west side of Fourth Avenue.
In 1869 Bethel moved to its first permanent home, buying a lot across the street from Brooks’s cottage and building a wood-frame church. The post–Civil War building boom was providing new job opportunities, and Ann Arbor’s black population had grown to 230. Members of the church held such jobs as laborers (John Britton, Martin and Robert Carson, Stephen Adams), carpenter (Henry Williams), plow setter (John Brown), barber (Lucian Brown), porter (George Brown), and drayman (Henry Smith).
In 1890 Rev. Abraham Cottman, the minister at the time, suggested that the members build a bigger church. The next year they moved the frame building to the back of the lot and laid the cornerstone for the new building. A group of young people formed the Furnishing Club; as soon as the basement was done, they fitted it out for services, and the congregation moved in.
The parishioners, many of whom were skilled craftsmen, continued to work on the sanctuary. Members contributed money for windows, pews, and other furnishings. Two of the stained glass windows are named in memory of early church members John Brown and B. Fassett. Fassett’s husband, a minister, had led Bethel in 1865, and the Fassetts’ daughter, Mrs. John Freeman, paid for the window. According to one local history, O. W. Stephenson’s Ann Arbor: The First Hundred Years, some of the money also came from white businessmen in town (one stained glass window has “Eberbach Hardware” on it).
Bethel nearly lost its hard-won church only a few years after moving in. In the economic depression that followed the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, church members were thrown out of work, the congregation fell behind on its payments, and the mortgage was about to be foreclosed. On the day the foreclosure sale was scheduled, church members sat in court silently praying for a reprieve. Just as the gavel was about to go down, trustee Stephen Adams came running in.
“They were in trouble. They were behind in their mortgage,” says Judy Overstreet, Adams’s great-granddaughter, relaying the story as her grandmother told it to her. “He [Adams] came tearing in with the money. He had put another mortgage on his house [to cover the church’s debt].”
Just half a block away from Bethel, on the corner of Beakes and Fifth Avenue, Second Baptist built its first church. Longtime Bethel member Rosemarion Blake recalls that on summer Sundays when both congregations had their windows open, they could hear each other singing. Blake remembers some funny coincidences--like the time one congregation sang “Will there be any stars in my crown?” and the other, singing a different hymn, responded, “No, not one.”
In Ann Arbor’s early days, blacks lived spread around town, but by the end of the nineteenth century most were concentrated around the two black churches and across the Huron River in Lower Town. The Bethel history explains that the church stood “in one of the few neighborhoods in Ann Arbor where blacks were permitted to purchase property. Consequently, Bethel was ideally situated to provide its congregation and the larger community with services that went beyond being a primary place of worship. Anyone who walked or drove past Bethel--at practically any time of the day or evening--saw a brightly lit church inviting them to come in and participate in whatever activities were taking place.”
“There were always so many activities,” remembers Irma Wright, who grew up in the church in the 1940s. She sang in the junior choir, worked on Christmas pageants with the other kids, and enjoyed the big outdoor dinners in the back in the summer. The basement was used for Sunday school and for meetings and clubs. During the week the church was open for Bible study.
Blondeen Munson has wonderful memories of the ACE youth group (short for “Allen Christian Endeavor,” after the denomination’s founder) that met at the church in the 1950s under the leadership of Harry Mial and Shirley Baker. “It was a really, really important place to be,” Munson recalls. “It attracted not just the Bethel teenagers but kids from Second Baptist and a few black Catholics in the neighborhood. It was really rap sessions. There was lots of talking about life, school. We’d get help with homework, went on hayrides, had parties.”
Mial, who at the same time was running the youth canteen at Willow Run, often organized joint activities to lessen the rivalries between the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti communities, such as taking both groups roller-skating at a rink in Inkster. When he discovered that these weekly excursions were keeping the segregated rink in business, he used the leverage to persuade the owner to integrate it.
In the 1960s Mial was also a leader of the Ann Arbor Fair Housing Association. The desegregation group held many of its meetings at Bethel. “We’d have weekly, biweekly, triweekly meetings there, and no one ever objected,” he recalls. “We were welcome because they supported what we were doing.”
After a year of picketing Pittsfield Village because it wouldn’t rent to blacks, the group convinced the Ann Arbor City Council to pass a resolution banning discrimination in housing and employment. “It was the reference from then on, the enabler,” says Mial.
Bethel’s minister at the time was Rev. Lyman Parks, who himself was very involved in community affairs and was often asked to serve on city boards and commissions. When Parks was later transferred to Grand Rapids, he became even more involved in politics, ending up as mayor of the city. “Ann Arbor whetted his appetite,” says Mial.
Parks’s successor was John A. Woods. “Parks was more aggressive about getting on committees,” Mial says, comparing the two. “Woods was more a seer, a wise man. He would listen and counsel.” Woods’s son, John A. Woods Jr., agrees, calling his father “rabbinical, meaning teacher.” Although different from Parks in style, the elder Woods was equally involved in the community. His son remembers him as “accessible. He lived on West Summit, in the heart of the community. He was seen sitting on the front porch. People knew their pastor was there.
“There was no such a thing as making an appointment. People just showed up. I remember late-night counseling sessions, people distraught because their son or daughter was arrested. He’d do what he could to ameliorate the situation.”
Woods extended his concerns to the larger black community. “Although he had no mantle other than local pastor, he was one of the de facto leaders of the community,” his son says. His wife, Juanita Woods, was a teacher, and he became concerned over tracking in the public schools. The police would call him in to help defuse explosive situations. He also served the community by making Bethel Church available for funerals. “Some churches only bury you if you’re a member,” John A. Woods Jr. explains, “sometimes only if you’re a member in good standing. But his only requirement to be buried at Bethel was that you had to be dead.”
Woods’s biggest legacy may have been his work in shepherding the new church on Plum Street (now John A. Woods Drive) to completion. The church had owned the land across the river near Northside School since 1953 but didn’t decide to build on it until after Woods came and the congregation became too numerous to stay on Fourth Avenue.
“It was a great thing to have the church there. Lots of members lived in the neighborhood. We were sorry [to move], but we had to go on,” says longtime member Pauline Dennard. The building was too small for all the congregation’s religious and outreach activities, and parking was inadequate.
When Munson was growing up, as she remembers, “we didn’t have a large parking lot. We didn’t need it--everyone walked.” But as desegregation opened up new neighborhoods to black residents and people moved farther away, more began driving to church. Some suggested that they stay on Fourth Avenue, tear down the old church, and rebuild, but parking would still have been a problem.
The congregation moved to the new church in 1971, using the education wing for services until the sanctuary was completed in 1974. “It was remarkable,” says Irma Wright, remembering the first time she saw the new building. “There was so much parking. The church looked so big.” Second Baptist also left the old neighborhood in the 1970s, moving to a big new church on Red Oak off Miller.
In August 1989, after a successful fund-raising campaign led by Rosemarion and Richard Blake, Bethel AME burned the mortgage on its new church. John A. Woods Sr. died four months later. “He hung on to see the fruition of his dreams,” says his son.
The three ministers who followed Woods--Clifford Gordon, Archie Criglar, and current pastor Alfred Johnson--have all been active in the community. According to Mial, “Each pastor had to come and get active because it’s an active church. They inherited what their predecessors had done.”
They definitely need the parking space: today members live all around town, and most drive to church. Dennard, whose husband served on city council in the 1950s, running on a platform of fair housing, recalls that back then, housing for blacks “was limited to where you lived in that time. Now, lots of people are living all over Ann Arbor. It’s beautiful.” A scan of the church directory shows members living in every zip code in Ann Arbor, plus a handful from surrounding communities.
New Grace Apostolic Church bought Bethel’s Fourth Avenue building in 1971 and remained there until last September. “They had choir practice in the evening,” recalls Heather Phillips, who lived nearby. “Their music filled the neighborhood. It was great.”
But history has repeated itself: New Grace, too, has outgrown the Fourth Avenue church. Member Bobbie Baugh says the congregation has tripled in size since buying the building and is now close to 100 members.
“We moved because the building was functionally obsolete,” says Baugh. “It was inadequate for our needs. We want to serve the community, reach out to youth, offer weekend activities to people outside the church.” While awaiting completion of its new church on Packard across from Buhr Park, New Grace is renting space for weekday programs at First Church of the Nazarene and holds Sunday services at the Red Cross.
Mike Bielby, himself a neighborhood resident who appreciated the old church’s charm, bought the building and is turning it into four apartments (see Inside Ann Arbor, January). “I’ll have it match the earliest appearance as close as possible,” he promises. Bielby plans to create two handicapped-accessible apartments on the lower floor, where community activities were held; a luxurious three-bedroom apartment in what was the sanctuary; and a fourth apartment in a newly created third floor in the upper area of the sanctuary. He’s already restored the stained glass windows and has pledged to fix up the tower.
As Bielby starts working on the building, he is amazed at what good shape it is in after more than 100 years of use. “The craftsmanship was excellent,” he says.