Places of Worship as Epicenters for Change: Highlights from the National Register of Historic Places

Today’s post was written by Alicia Henneberry, Archives Specialist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

The United States is an eclectic patchwork of diverse faiths and religious beliefs that manifest physically in a community of believers and the places of worship in which they gather. Throughout history, some of these places of worship and their congregants have come to represent more than just their faith – they’ve also served as epicenters of civil rights reform. Particularly for many Black Americans, the Christian church was a place not just to worship, but to gather, plan, and fight against racism and discrimination within their communities. In some instances, Black Americans found allies in particular white Christian communities, who supported abolitionist efforts and the fight against inequality. The records of the National Register of Historic Places (NAID 20812721) in Record Group 79: Records of the National Parks Service contain files on many of these revolutionary institutions that supported and fought for change and justice, three of which were the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Sherwood Equal Rights District, and the Bethel Baptist Church.

Pennsylvania – Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

view of front and side of Mother Bethel AME church
Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, ca. 2016

The first place of worship is the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (NAID 71994313). Established in 1794, the church houses one of the first all-Black Christian denominations in America, and rests on the longest, continuously-owned piece of land in America by African Americans. It and the faith of its worshippers also serve as a testament to its founder, Reverend Richard Allen.

Richard Allen was born into slavery on February 14, 1760 and was called early into the Methodist faith. Eventually able to purchase his own freedom, Allen traveled and preached along the East Coast, and was later called to minister to the Black congregants of St. George’s Church in Philadelphia. While allowed to worship at St. George’s, Allen and his congregants were forced to occupy separate pews from their white worshippers, eventually even relegated to the upper gallery of the church and standing room behind the pews. As the number of Black congregants grew and tensions with white congregants heightened, Allen knew he needed to establish a separate and independent place of worship for his congregants.

illus. drawn portraits of the 11 Bishops of AME Church, arranged in a circle w/Allen in center
Bishops of the AME Church (Library of Congress)

To accomplish this feat, Allen created the Free African Society, a non-denominational mutual aid fund, which included other prominent Black religious leaders such as Absalom Jones. Though faced with hostile opposition from white Philadelphians who did not support an independent African American church, the Free African Society was bolstered by financial support from the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, and wealthy benefactors like John Nicolson and Dr. Benjamin Rush. With their support and contributions, a 500-person building for the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas was constructed, for which Jones became the minister. Allen, however, wished to remain within the Methodist faith, and with those same benefactors’ assistance, was able to purchase a plot of land and a former blacksmith’s shop building to house his own church, later named Mother Bethel.

            From the doors of Mother Bethel, Allen became an important leader and activist in his community. During the yellow fever plague of 1793, he and other religious leaders organized aid for the poor and sick, and were looked to for medical and communal assistance by the same white society which had previously opposed their activities. He also fought against the governing Methodist Conference, which sought to expel Allen for starting an independent church and gain control over Allen’s congregation. To maintain independence from the Methodist Conference, other Black Methodist churches came together to form the new African Methodist Episcopal Church with Reverend Allen as their first bishop. The congregation of Mother Bethel eventually grew too large for the humble wood house it started in, and continued to grow over the decades, surpassing the congregation of Absalom Jones’ St. Thomas Church close by. Over time, three different buildings were raised on the site, until the fourth and final version was erected and dedicated in 1890. The structure, now an imposing Gothic church complete with a tower and stained glass windows, dominates the corner of South 6th St and Addison St in center city Philadelphia, PA. The church also holds the tomb of Richard Allen and a museum of his personal effects, serving as a monument to his conviction and faith.

cover of program with drawing of church front, list of pastor and elders
Service program for Mother Bethel AME Church, 1993 (NAID 71994313)

New York – Sherwood Equal Rights District

Further north of Philadelphia, nestled amongst the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, lies the small town of Scipio, NY. Settled in 1794, the same year as the establishment of Reverend Allen’s church, Scipio’s Sherwood district (NAID 75312230) was largely founded upon the values of the Quaker faith, which created a remarkable community distinguished by its open-mindedness, activism, and unique diversity.

map of Sherwood community with business labeled
Map of Sherwood, 1859 (NAID 75312230)

Also known as the Society of Friends, Quakers were a unique group in the young American nation, having as early as 1644 disavowed slavery and the slave trade. Quakers firmly believe that all are equal in the eyes of God, and that this equality should be actively promoted within their own communities. These Quaker values and activism permeated much of the upper New York area during the 1800’s, including having a large influence on the attendees and ideology in Seneca, NY during the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848.

True to these beliefs, the residents of Sherwood were abolitionists, and promoted the equality of women, Native Americans, and Black Americans both within their neighborhood and across the country. One of the most prominent Quaker families of Sherwood was the Howland family. Emily Howland was a well known women’s right advocate and abolitionist, and founded the Sherwood Equal Rights Association. She both financially supported and taught at schools for Black children in Washington D.C. and Virginia, later founding a school in Sherwood that would eventually bear her name. Howland family residences were also a part of the Underground Railroad, and the family hosted many important personages and abolitionists, such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Booker T. Washington.

Photograph shows abolitionist and educator Emily Howland (1827-1929) in a head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right
Emily Howland (Library of Congress)

The district of Sherwood as it is preserved today comprises 29 properties, many of which are rare in that they were owned by freed slaves. One example is the Herman and Hannah Phillips House, which was purchased by the Phillips in 1842 after they returned from Canada, where they had previously escaped to from Maryland. Following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, Sherwood’s activism never faltered, as subsequent generations of these families continued to reside in the area and fight for women’s rights and education equality. Many of the historic houses of Sherwood’s prominent families are still standing today, including Emily Howland’s House and a family museum where the devotion and activism of the Quaker community will continue to be preserved and shared.

Alabama – Bethel Baptist Church, Parsonage, and Guardhouse

The third and final site is the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama (NAID 77835649), which was built around 1926. The church and its grounds, which also includes a parsonage and guardhouse, are historically significant today as a former headquarters of church-led protests in the modern Civil Rights movement of the 1950s-1960s. 

exterior view of church showing front steps and stained glass windows on side
Bethel Baptist Church, ca. 2002 (NAID 77835649)
view of interior of church showing wooden pews and stained glass windows
Interior Pews of Bethel Baptist Church, ca. 2002 (NAID 77835649)

During the Civil Rights movement of the mid-twentieth century, Black churches often served as the headquarters for various activist groups, as they were ideal bases for strategizing and planning, and could also provide financial support and local, community leadership. Bethel Baptist in particular served as the headquarters for the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR).

photo of Shuttlesworth with tie and suit jacket
Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, ca.1970-1980 (Library of Congress)

The ACMHR was founded in June 1956 by Fred Shuttlesworth, who had become the reverend of Bethel Baptist in 1953. He was reportedly well-liked by his congregation and was known as an “emotional” preacher who was able to move his listeners with passionate stories from the Bible that he related to current events. Additionally, Shuttlewsworth served as chairman of the Birmingham chapter of the NAACP, but was forced to form a different movement when the NAACP was banned by Alabama Governor John Patterson. Upon meeting with local faith leaders and other community members in Birmingham, Shuttlewsorth formed the ACMHR, which ran its meetings out of Bethel Baptist until 1961.

During its operation out of Bethel Baptist, the ACMHR was supported by approximately 1,000 participants, most of whom were women and working-class individuals from the local community. ACMHR members supported bus boycotts like many other prominent civil rights groups, but was one of the first to engage in direct action and non-violent demonstrations targeting discrimination in workplaces, schools, and public buildings, such as train stations and parks.

many people sitting in a church
Meeting of the ACMHR, 1958 (NAID 77835649)

The demonstrations carried out by Shuttlesworth and the ACMHR were often met with assaults by police and mass arrests, and the Gothic facade of Bethel Baptist Church was not immune to the often violent backlash. The building was bombed no less than three times, with the first in 1956 destroying the parsonage building and almost killing Shuttlesworth himself. The guardhouse on the property was built in response to these attacks, staffed by volunteer ACMHR members who became known as “Civil Rights Guards.”

While still serving as president of the ACMHR, Shuttlesworth left work at Bethel Baptist  in 1961 to serve as a pastor in Cincinnati, Ohio, from where he regularly commuted back to Alabama for work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he helped found, and the 1963 Birmingham Campaign. Shuttlesworth and the work of the ACMHR is widely recognized as instrumental in the direct-action protests and demonstrations that came to characterize the modern Civil Rights movement, and its legacy is now enshrined in a museum at the historic Bethel Baptist Church that can be visited by all today.


RG 79, National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records: Pennsylvania, “Pennsylvania NHL Mother Bethel AME Church” NAID 71994313

RG 79, National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records: Pennsylvania, “Pennsylvania MPS African American Churches of Philadelphia 1787-1949 MPS” NAID 71993813

Christian History, “Richard Allen: Founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church

RG 79, National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records: New York, “New York MPS Sherwood Equal Rights Historic District” NAID 75312230

Howland Stone Store Museum “Sherwood Equal Rights Historic District

RG 79, National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records: Alabama, “Alabama NHL Bethel Baptist Church, Parsonage, and Guardhouse” NAID 77835649

RG 79, National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records: Alabama, “Alabama MPS Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama 1933-1979 MPS” NAID 77835227

Historic Bethel Baptist Church

Additional property files for the Sherwood Equal Rights District:

New York MPS North Street Friends Meetinghouse (NAID 75312210)

New York MPS Howland, Slocum and Hannah, House NAID 75312214)

New York MPS Howland Cobblestone Store NAID 75312168

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