The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest ‘black’ business in the continental United States. The AME Church is a symbol of self determination and nationalism. Marcus Garvey and Nelson Mandela once stood in its pulpits. A pivotal black rebellion was organized behind its walls. Although this may be true, revolutionary struggle and the AME Church are no longer synonymous. What happened? Where did this establishment lose its relevance?
Some people in the church are pushing for reparations. Others water down a legacy on one of the blackest streets in the south. Why? And how?
The AME Church grew out of the Free African Society
. It was established in 1787 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It’s founders are Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. The congregation was originally non – denominational. During that time, the members wanted to affiliate with existing denominations. Bethel African Methodist
Church formed in 1793. The church, Bethel AME, was later dedicated in 1794.
Richard Allen served as the pastor. In addition to that, Allen successfully sued in the Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815 and legally won the right to exist as an independent institution. What was equally important was the fact that they did not have to worship with white Methodist congregations. This act alone made Richard Allen an abolitionist. He worked to upgrade the social status of the black community.
The AME Church grew quickly after its inception with congregations sprouting up throughout the south. The black church was a unique source of political and spiritual empowerment. The movement was particularly strong , in Charleston, South Carolina. By the year 1818, a former slave by the name of Denmark Vesey began organizing the largest slave revolt in U.S. history. At Emanuel AME Church. Denmark Vesey was looked at as a ‘spiritual and political champion. It is not a coincidence that the recent terrorist attack ritual, featuring Dylan Roof, took place at Emanuel AME. That is the exact location where Denmark Vesey has a statue erected to honor him. In those gatherings of the early African church, Vesey held a position as class leader.
Fast forward to today: There is no representation of Denmark Vesey in any Atlanta, Georgia AME churches. He was never mentioned during my work experience at Big Bethel AME Church. On the rare occasion, they participate in the naming of ancestors, Denmark Vesey’s name is never one of them. Furthermore, there are no classes emphasizing revolutionary thought. Big Bethel is one of the oldest black churches in the south. The church is 164 years old. What is equally important is that Big Bethel AME Church is on Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta. Auburn Avenue is one of the greatest streets in Black History. However; at Big Bethel, black empowerment (business or community wise) is damn near absent. As a matter of fact, leadership at Big Bethel AME is not even willing to provide funding for an ‘urban garden’ as a means to teach the youth about self sufficiency and nutrition.
Big Bethel owns a lot of property. They own a residence tower in addition to the Big Bethel Village retirement home. The church rents out buildings on the block to successful businesses. At the same time, they sit in the midst of Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward revitalization. To say nothing of how the congregation continues to fund Morris Brown college. Yet, there is little to no ownership of the spirit of self – determination that was embodied by its founders and prominent figures.
Police antagonism impacted the church members of Denmark Vesey’s era in the same way, law enforcement continues to assault our communities today. “In 1817, and again in 1818, the government sent its police force to beat and arrest A.M.E members and physically disperse it’s congregation and destroy the church building” Charleston’s city guard arrested ‘469 blacks’ that were ‘engaged in worship’ and considered a ‘nuisance’. Those negroes received a sentence of lashes and fines. By the same token, ‘colored’ men and women are killed at will almost daily. In these perilous times, the AME Church has done little to protest, revolt, or organize.
The AME Church has failed to honor it’s ancestry and tradition. All things considered, too many are lukewarm in terms of empowerment, education, and protest. There should be greater expectations of an organization that has been historically trail blazing in establishing revolutionary action against the ‘powers that be’.