Pittsburgh’s oldest Black church was demolished as ‘blight’ in the 1950s Lower Hill. Today, members seek justice.
by Chris Hedlin, Rich Lord and Naomi Harris
As conversations heat up over development plans for the Lower Hill District, one voice is drawing religious history into the spotlight.
Bethel AME Church, founded in 1808, was once a thriving congregation and center of learning and social activism. As part of the Lower Hill redevelopment project of the 1950s, the City of Pittsburgh seized the church by eminent domain and demolished it, despite eminent domain laws excluding churches from their reach.
The more the congregation has learned about the situation since — the laws, the value of the property versus the $240,000 in compensation they received, the fact that a neighboring white church wasn’t torn down — the more they understand the demolition as an act of racism. They feel Bethel was targeted as a progressive Black congregation without options for legal recourse.
“We had nobody we could go to and sue in the ’50s,” said Rev. Dale Snyder, Bethel’s current pastor, citing the racial violence they could face for making “too much noise.” Snyder arrived at Bethel 16 months ago, having previously served as a pastor and activist in Erie and Cleveland.
The church property became part of the Civic Arena site, and Bethel struggled to attract new members and serve its displaced community’s needs from a less central location up the Hill.
Now Bethel members are seeking reparations. They are challenging the city, the redevelopers of the Lower Hill and local white faith communities to acknowledge how they have participated in or profited from racist systems and to compensate Bethel for its losses.
Diamonte Walker, deputy executive director of the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, is a fifth-generation Hill resident. “The way that development was done in years prior has been historically and emotionally harmful, particularly to Black people,” she said. “…There is no dollar amount that I think could ever repair and mend the breach of what was lost when Bethel was demolished.”
“Demolition of Bethel AME Church, Wylie Avenue and Elm Street, Lower Hill District, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, July 24, 1957.” (Photo by Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images)
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