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African Americans Built Churches

Miriam B. Murphy
History Blazer, July 1996

Wherever African Americans gathered in sufficient number they soon organized a church. That was true throughout the West, including Utah. Although blacks first settled permanently in Salt Lake City in July 1847, a black community did not really evolve until the 1890s when the territory’s African American population reached 533, a majority of whom resided in the capital city. That set the stage in November 1890 for a group led by Reverend James Saunders to organize an association to build an African Methodist Episcopal Church. Trustees for the new church included L. Steele, J. C. Steinbeck, P. H. Robinson, B. B Nesbitt, L. F. Fulkerson, J. M. Cook, H. Grider, M. Dent, and L. F. Blanchard. A fund-raising campaign was begun with enthusiasm, and Mrs. B. B. Nesbitt, who called upon LDS president Wilford Woodruff, secured a pledge of $50 from him for the project. Mrs. Nesbitt was listed in the city directory as the proprietor of the Manitou Dining Room. During its first decades the church met in several different locations under several ministers and evolved into the present Trinity A.M.E. Church.

In the mid-1890s the Baptist Prayer Band, a group that first met in the home of Emma Jackson for prayers and Bible study, grew too large to gather in private homes and began to meet for worship services in a small building at 37 1/2 South West Temple. From this beginning came the Calvary Baptist Church. The church’s first pastor was Reverend J. W. Washington, who served from 1899 to 1904. One of Calvary’s memorable fund-raising events, an old-fashioned “Possum Dinner” staged in 1902, was reported in detail in the Salt Lake Herald. According to the newspaper, Mrs. Lloyd Blanchard, who had come from Kentucky 19 years earlier to “preside over Governor Murray’s kitchen, parboiled the ‘possums [imported from Missouri] and roasted them, her face aglow with smiles, telling the while tales of before the [Civil] war to her assistants, Mrs. Fannie Barker, Mrs. Emma Jackson and Mrs. Nellie Johnson.” The feast, which ran from 2 to 10 p.m., attracted all of the black community, the Herald claimed, and many white visitors—especially those from the South. The menu included yams, hoe cake, tomatoes, corn, hot biscuits, coffee, ice cream, and cake. On Sunday, June 29, 1902, Reverend Washington and his congregation welcomed visitors at a reception in the new chapel at 472 East Second South.

Historian Ronald G. Coleman described the role of churches in the African American community: “The church was often the center of social activities as well as the meeting place of church-sponsored auxiliaries, literary societies, and other organizations. The ministers of the congregations often served as community leaders and spokesmen. In addition to serving the spiritual and secular needs of the local Afro-American community, the church, along with fraternal organizations and newspapers, provided an important psychological link with the national black community.” This was true of Trinity A.M.E. and Calvary, both of which sponsored a number of auxiliaries and whose pastors participated in the city’s Ministerial Association.

Coleman noted the close cooperation of the two churches. Each congregation on occasion attended functions at the other church, and “they jointly supported a chapter of the Christian Endeavor Society.” During the century since their founding the two churches continued to grow and evolve under the leadership of their ministers and lay people.

The development of black churches, fraternal lodges, and social clubs at the turn of the century gave Salt Lake City’s African Americans a sense of community. Although “prohibited from full participation in the social and cultural activities of the state, they, as Afro-Americans elsewhere, created and supported institutions that gave greater meaning to their own lives and brought them closer to the national black community,” Coleman concluded.

Sources: Ronald G. Coleman, “A History of Blacks in Utah, 1829-1910” (Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1980); Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, 1899-1976 (Salt Lake City, 1976).