How did Pittsburgh’s oldest Black church form? What was its role in the Underground Railroad and fighting slavery?

Rev. Dale Snyder, current pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Hill District, and other local clergy lead worship together at a service on June 19, 2021. The service took place in a parking lot where the church once stood before it was demolished in the 1950s. Bethel is the oldest Black church in Pittsburgh, founded in 1808. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Bethel AME, now located in the Hill District, began as a small, unaffiliated Black congregation. Its members were anti-slavery activists from the start.

by Chris Hedlin, PublicSource

In 1808, the story goes, people of African descent established the first Black Protestant congregation in Pittsburgh — what would later become the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Hill District.

The exact year of origin is hard to know, said Jamaal Craig, a community activist and civil rights historian. When it comes to early Black American history, written records often lag behind the actual “things in motion.” 

Who were these early Black Protestants, and how did they establish the Bethel AME Church?

The answers to those questions have everything to do with slave laws and pursuits of freedom.

In 1808, slavery was still legal in Pennsylvania to an extent. The Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 declared that any enslaved person born before March 1, 1780, would stay enslaved for life. Anyone born after 1780 would serve a 28-year period of indentured servitude and then be freed. The last enslaved people in Pennsylvania weren’t freed until 1847.

Pennsylvania’s laws were still more progressive than many neighboring states. This was thanks in large part to Pennsylvania’s large number of Quakers, who were steadfastly against slavery. 

Historic photo of Bethel AME Church, a large, Romanesque-style cathedral, amid demolition. A crane hovers over the building, and a few construction workers stand in front.
“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)

Virginia and Maryland to the south were slaveholding states. Although Ohio entered the Union as free territory, it had “Black codes” that prohibited many people of African descent from settling there. (For example, hopeful residents had to pay a $500 bond upon their arrival.)

For this reason, between about 1800 and the Civil War, Pennsylvania — and Pittsburgh in particular, because of its westward location — became a refuge for self-liberating people, freedom seekers and Black children of white enslavers, particularly from Virginia, said Samuel W. Black, director of the African American Program at the Heinz History Center. 

By 1808, Pittsburgh’s Black population would have included many of these migrants.

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