Visiting an African American church is a distinctive cultural and historic experience. From the soul-stirring gospel music and mesmerizing choirs to the energetic and powerful sermons, the beautiful architecture and the amazing stories the churches tell about American history, African American churches are quickly becoming magnets for worship and tourism.
Since the nation’s founding, these churches have long been the religious and cultural center of African American communities across the country. They are not only places of worship but also places of community, family, safety and relative freedom.
African American churches have also evolved into centers of cultural exploration and activism most notably during the civil rights era when churches became the backbone of the movement. The churches’ rights advocacy and leadership in that space continue today in a variety of ways shaped by their history.
Rose Hill Missionary Baptist Church
Located in Adams County, in the northern suburbs of Natchez, Mississippi, Rose Hill Missionary Baptist Church has many distinguishing features. One, for Civil War history buffs, is the church derived its name from the 12-acre Rose Hill estate that was destroyed by the Union Army during the Civil War. Many African Americans of that era who lived in the vicinity adopted the name Rose Hill for the community and the church.
Another noteworthy feature of the church is it was established before the Civil War and is recognized as the oldest “organized” Black Baptist congregation in Mississippi, dating back to 1837, making it the oldest African American church in Natchez. The church’s first official pastor, Randle Pollard, served from 1867 to 1890.
In 1908, the original wood-frame church was destroyed in a fire caused by a gas explosion in a neighboring building. The church community at the time was so committed to rebuilding this irreplaceable community center for social, spiritual, educational and political learning that the parishioners banded together to build the church that exists today. The 1908 church was built in the late Victorian Gothic Revival style, and includes stained-glass windows, which were exorbitantly costly at the time.
A few years later, in 1912, the church installed a Moller pipe organ, which is still there today. The hard work and dedication to rebuild the church coupled with the love and care given to preserving the church over the years resulted in Rose Hill being named a state historic landmark.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in the heart of Washington’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood is a multicultural and multigenerational Episcopal Church founded in 1867. In 1865, 28 Black men and women took the first steps toward establishing an Episcopal church specifically for Black people in Washington, D.C., in response to the racial discrimination of the era. Even in houses of worship, racial segregation was required. Many churches offered limited services — and in some cases no services — to Black parishioners, which the St. Mary’s founders deemed unacceptable.
This group began prevailing on church leadership to help them identify resources and a location to build a church of their own. As a result of their advocacy, land was made available in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood in northwest D.C. President Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, an Episcopalian and parishioner at the Church of the Epiphany, personally saw to it that the chapel attached to the Kalorama Hospital, which was being removed, was taken apart, loaded on wagons, and rebuilt as the first church building exclusively for Black Episcopalians in Washington D.C.
The Gothic Revival architecture and carved oak furniture are warm and inviting especially during the holidays. The stained-glass windows are famous both for their beauty and for the stories they tell, including two windows dedicated in memory of Lincoln and one to Stanton. In 1973, the church was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
St. Andrews African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church
California was admitted to the Union in 1850, the same year that St. Andrews AME Church was founded in Sacramento by a group of early Black settlers.
St. Andrews is the oldest continuous African Methodist AME congregation on the West Coast. From its earliest days, the church served as a place of refuge and offered lodging to enslaved people looking to escape and find a better life in a new place.
From 1855 to 1865, the church played a vital role promoting the civil rights of African Americans by hosting three of four California Colored Citizen’s Conventions. The conventions provided a venue and an opportunity for delegates from nearly every county in California to come together and discuss the state of affairs for Black Americans living in California. It also gave them the opportunity to safely air, discuss, and debate grievances including the fact that African American males did not have the right to vote and no Black Californians could give testimony in state courts, among other injustices.
In 1951, the church moved to the building they continue to use today, which is adjacent to scenic Southside Park. A historical marker remains in the site of the church’s original location. Today the church continues the traditions of its pioneering past and focuses much of its efforts on advocacy for religious, social action, political, educational and cultural concerns for the underrepresented throughout Sacramento. The church’s motto is “God’s people doing God’s will God’s way,” and the congregation remains dedicated to serving community and transforming lives.
Mother African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church
Mother AME Zion Church is the oldest African American church in New York State, founded in 1796 and chartered in 1799 in lower Manhattan.
The church is also referred to as Mother Zion and “Freedom Church” for its active participation in the abolitionist movement, for serving as safe haven on the Underground Railroad network and for its demonstrated commitment to social activism and collective responsibility.
In 1925, the present Neo-Gothic church was completed in Harlem, located on West 137th Street between the famous Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Lenox Avenue, where the church continues to operate. The building was constructed with granite, features large, multi-panel stained glass windows, and seats 1,000 people.
New Jersey architect George Foster Jr. was commissioned to design the church and was one of the first registered Black architects in the country. The current location was designated a New York City Landmark in 1993.
The church has a colorful and storied history and claims Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and famous abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass among its congregants and members, all of whom spoke out from the pulpit against slavery. Later, Mother Zion became an important cultural center of New York’s African American community and was an active part of the Harlem Renaissance. The Pastor of Mother Zion during the height of the Harlem Renaissance was Benjamin Robeson, a civil rights activist who created opportunities to work with Harlem Renaissance leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Marian Anderson, Joe Luis, Madam C.J. Walker, Langston Hughes and his younger brother, Paul Robeson.
Today the church hosts and sponsors a wide variety of social, cultural and religious programs for its members and the community.
Olivet Baptist Church
Predating the Emancipation Proclamation, Chicago’s Olivet Baptist Church first organized on April 6, 1850, as the Xenia Baptist Church, with only three members. In 1861, the church united with another Black Baptist congregation and was named Olivet Baptist Church.
Since the 19th century, the church has been a source of Black leadership in Chicago. Many church pastors have been active and influential in all levels of political life. Olivet played a pivotal role in the Great Migration, working with the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper founded in 1905, and the Bethlehem Baptist Association. These organizations and others protested Jim Crow-era violence and urged Black people in the South to settle in North with the promise of jobs, housing and better opportunities.
By the early 20th century, Olivet was known as the first stop for African Americans during the Great Migration. The church had a nursery, day care, employment center and medical facilities and offered everything a migrating person would need to help them through the journey. As a result of these efforts, the church congregation grew exponentially to about 10,000 during the 1920s, at which time the church was known as the largest Protestant church in the world. By the 1940s, the membership had grown to 20,000.
Olivet Baptist Church is the oldest operating African American Baptist church in Chicago. The exterior of the church is in the Gothic Revival style with an interior auditorium plan, where the pews and gallery curve to face the pulpit.
St. Augustine Catholic Church
Established in 1841 by free people of color, St. Augustine Catholic Church is considered the oldest Black Catholic Church in the United States. The founders of the church never forgot their community and made it a point to purchase extra pews enabling enslaved people to attend services comfortably.
St. Augustine’s was among the first sites designated as part of the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail. Located only a few blocks from New Orleans’ famous French Quarter, the property upon which St. Augustine stands was once part of the Claude Tremé plantation in the neighborhood now known as Tremé. Tremé was traditionally an African American neighborhood and over time has become the multicultural community it is today. Tremé and greater New Orleans is known for its legendary jazz tradition, which has been incorporated into the music and worship of the church.
St. Augustine hosts an annual Jazz Mass as part of the Satchmo Festival, which honors Louis Armstrong’s birthday. On Sundays, the church offers a weekly gospel jazz mass, which attracts local audiences and tourists from around the world.
The church also remains committed to paying homage to the generations that came before. The Tomb of the Unknown Slave is in a garden plot on the church grounds, serving as a testament and a monument to the nameless and forgotten enslaved people who died before emancipation. The site for the monument was specifically selected due to the physical location on the former Tremé plantation, where many enslaved lived and toiled.
Due to damage caused by Hurricane Katrina and reduced numbers of parishioners St. Augustine’s faced the possibility of closure by the diocese. However, through extensive community support and the protestations of dedicated parishioners, the doors of St. Augustine remain open. The parishioners protest efforts were so impactful that they became the subject of “Shake the Devil Off,” a documentary about the protest.