Pilgrim Baptist Church, founded by former slaves, celebrates 150 years

Praise Dancers
The Praise Dancers participate in a service at Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul, Minn., May 5, 2013. Pilgrim Baptist is celebrating its 150th anniversary June 21-23, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The faces in stained glass that inspire worshippers at the Pilgrim Baptist Church aren't those of a white Jesus and the saints.

Instead, they're the faces of the black ministers who led the church, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The window closest to the altar carries a portrait of Robert Hickman, an escaped slave from Missouri who 150 years ago led slaves traveling north on the Underground Railroad, a physical and spiritual migration that Pilgrim Baptist celebrates this month.

According to church history, the group of about 50, who called themselves "Pilgrims," journeyed by a self-made river boat to St. Paul in 1863, seeking freedom and a place to worship.

"I think he was a Minnesota pioneer," said Hickman's great-great granddaughter, Sharon Harper. "I do think the fact that he was educated made the critical difference."

Video from Pilgrim Baptist Church. Story continues below.

Hickman's owner was a minister who taught him to read.

Although Hickman saw opportunity in Minnesota, the arrival of the former slaves during the Civil War wasn't well received by local officials, who quickly moved to separate them.

"They were approached by the local authorities and told that their group was just too large for this area and if they were planning on settling, a third would have to go to north, maybe to Duluth, a third would go south to Hastings and a third could stay here to settle," church member Nate Galloway said.

Hickman remained with the group in St. Paul, and studied for three years to become an ordained minister. The congregation first worshiped in rented space. Then, in 1866, Pilgrim Baptist Church moved to a permanent home in downtown St. Paul, making it the first predominantly black church in Minnesota. Church members celebrated with a baptism on the shore of the Mississippi.

Their descendants say that legacy motivates them to continue to follow the Gospel and help others in a time of different challenges: foreclosures, unemployment and a persistent achievement gap between black and white students.

THRIVING RONDO COMMUNITY

In 1928, the Rev. Lee Ward Harris, Nate Galloway's grandfather, moved the congregation up the hill to Central Avenue in the Rondo neighborhood, the heart of St. Paul's black community.

Praying together
Congregation members pray at Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul, Minn., May 5, 2013. Pilgrim Baptist is celebrating its 150th anniversary June 21-23, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Galloway said that in the 1930s, his grandfather, who is pictured on one of the church windows, continued the Pilgrim tradition of ministers who deplored the discriminatory treatment of black Americans.

"He went to the House of Representatives here in St. Paul and denounced segregation and that he told them it was unfair -- the disparity of blacks to whites working for the state," Galloway said. "I think at the time there were 22,000 Caucasians to maybe 16 people of color working for the state."

Pilgrim Baptist Church members founded local chapters of the Urban League and the NAACP, and also founded the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center.

For generations, the church drew black professionals and the working class, said Ora Lee Patterson, another lifelong member.

"The working men of this community were railroad men," Patterson said. "They worked at the packing house in South St. Paul. They worked in their own businesses, running their own businesses on Rondo Avenue. At one time on Rondo Avenue we had over 150 businesses. Now, some people will say, 'where were they?' They were small businesses, and yet they kept a family going."

DIVIDED BY AN INTERSTATE

In the late 1950s, church members learned the new Interstate 94 would cut through their neighborhood, as the new freeways would in black communities across the nation. It would displace homes and Rondo businesses, and carve a deep gorge one block from the church.

Following hymns
In a screen capture taken from video footage, parishioners sing hymns at Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul, Minn., May 5, 2013. Pilgrim Baptist is celebrating its 150th anniversary June 21-23, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"All of the ministers were concerned about their congregation with this freeway," Patterson said. "How are they going to get across this hole, many of them don't drive. How are they going to get across?"

In response, freeway planners agreed to add a series of narrow pedestrian bridges over the highway.

Nate Galloway, the grandson of the minister who'd moved the church to its home at Central Avenue and Grotto Street, remembers being six or seven years old when the bulldozers came. His family's house was bought out, but the family stayed in the neighborhood. Many others decided to move.

"Some good things and bad things happened at that point," Galloway said. "Good thing is that more housing opened up for more people of color. Bad thing, it fractured the church community in that people had more opportunities to worship in their new communities, closer to their own homes."

Although many in the congregation returned to the old neighborhood to go to church, by the 1980s Pilgrim Baptist began to benefit from a new migration.

"What I began to see was more black professionals coming in from other places and coming into Minnesota," Patterson said. "The various corporations were bringing them in, [like] General Mills... 3M was recruiting a lot of good black talent, and we still have in this church a lot of 3M retirees that came in during that time."

About two decades ago, Pilgrim reached a high point with 1,000 members. But since then, its membership has fallen to about 250. The congregation is focusing on how to attract new members, said the Rev. Charles Gill, senior pastor of Pilgrim Baptist. He said the church's history gives it an anchor, and the opportunity to chart a new course.

"As we emerge out of this 150th year celebration," Gill said, "we will emerge not just having had a good time, but also to be a church that is relevant, powerful and fruitful in meeting the needs of the people."

Toward that end, members of the church raise money to provide emergency assistance to anyone in need. They also run a food shelf, a clothing shelf and a prison ministry at the Ramsey County Workhouse.

DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE

On a recent Sunday, Gill retold the story of the church's founding, a story that spoke to the power of prayer and how the former slaves found deliverance through Christ.

"They journeyed up from Missouri to land down on the riverside here in St. Paul, Minnesota. There may be somebody here, right now, that's down and out," exhorted Gill during his sermon, as the congregation clapped in encouragement. "I need to tell you, you too... you need to go down by the riverside, that sacred place, that place of prayer."

Harper, the great-granddaughter of church founder Robert Hickman, said the church continues to be a beacon of freedom, education and community.

"You can't come to this church and not feel the spirit," she said with a laugh after the service. "I mean, if you walk away and don't have the spirit when you leave, you have to be dead.

"I felt it this morning."

PILGRIM BAPTIST CHURCH CELEBRATION
• Pilgrim Baptist Church will mark its 150th anniversary June 21-23 with a banquet and a new history book. Its guest speaker at the Sunday worship service will be the Rev. George Waddles, president of the National Baptist Convention Congress of Christian Education.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.