In Print and On the Map: Articles in the Indiana Digital Historic Newspaper Database and Corresponding State Historical Markers
Historical Marker 1–Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 414 West Vermont Street, Indianapolis, Indiana 46202
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Indianapolis’s oldest African-American church, has steadfastly served its community since before the Civil War. The church was founded in 1836 by a group of African-American Methodists. Members built a small church building on Georgia Street in between the Central Canal and Senate Avenue five years later. In 1857 members purchased Christ Episcopal Church and moved the building to their church’s site on Georgia Street. The role of Bethel AME Church, which was originally known as the Indianapolis Station, grew along with the black population of the city.
That black population made up approximately less than 3 percent of the total population in Indianapolis before the Civil War. Out of the total population of 1,338,710 in the state of Indiana in 1860, only 11,428 were African American. As the Civil War progressed though, the number of blacks coming to Indianapolis from the South as well as rural areas around the state only grew higher and higher.
Such an increase in the number and needs of the city’s black population, as well as its own membership, most likely prompted Bethel AME Church members to purchase a lot on West Vermont Street in 1867 for the construction of a new church building. By 1869 members had approved the name Bethel and moved to the new building on 414 West Vermont Street.
The new place of worship also became a place for social activism as well as a venue for organizing and implementing services in the black community. Those services included providing money, clothing, and temporary lodging to African-Americans immigrating to the city from the South after the Civil War.
Extending a helping hand to blacks coming to Indiana from the South was the subject of an article published in the Indianapolis Leader on January 24, 1880. (The Indianapolis Leader was the first black newspaper published in the city. You can read the blog post about the newspaper and its publishers and access digitized issues of the newspaper in the Indiana Digital Historic Newspaper Database for more information.)
In the article the writer included a transcript of an interview with Reverend W. C. Trevan, who was the Pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church at that time, concerning the activities of the Immigrant Relief Board since November 24, 1879, when a meeting was held to organize the committee at Bethel. Reverend Trevan was appointed as a member of the Immigrant Relief Board at that meeting along with several other pastors and community leaders including R. W. Wells, Charles Webb, E. Outland, W. H. Woods, J. S. Hinton, and L. E. Christy. Robert B. Bagby, cofounder of the Indianapolis Leader newspaper, served as board chairman.
The writer of the article explained that he met with Reverend Trevan to find out how many African Americans had traveled to Indianapolis from the South. In response to the writer’s questions Reverend Trevan first said, “I am in a position to know. To the last arrival I think it was about 438.” The writer also asked about the relocation of immigrants throughout the state. Referring to his notes, Reverend Trevan answered, “Eleven families have gone to Union City, 10 to Crawfordsville, 70 to Greencastle and 23 persons, among who were two men, to Shelbyville.” He also confirmed that several families were relocated to homes in other towns and cities in the state, like Spencer, Greenfield, and Terre Haute.
On the subject of where in the South African-Americans were emigrating from and in what numbers Reverend Trevan explained that the particulars varied. “Some 50 of the last lot came from Kentucky,” he said, “and they are coming in all the time from different points, and settling over the State. It is nothing new, [accepting] the large numbers in a lot. There has been a steady stream of colored emigration into the State for several years—particularly since the [Civil] war began and ended.”
By 1900, African Americans comprised about 10 percent (or 15,931) of the total population of the city. White realtors and segregationist groups worked to confine African Americans to heavily concentrated “colored” neighborhoods to the northwest of downtown Indianapolis as well as on the near east side and south side of the city in spite of the 1885 state civil right law that prohibited racial discrimination.
The article is followed by the Immigration Relief Board’s appeal to the public that was prepared by Robert Bagby, board chairman and cofounder of the Leader. (The issue also includes an interview with Rigdon Herring, an elder African-American man who came to Indiana from Lenoir County, North Carolina.)
Bethel AME Church continued to be an important thread in the fabric of the black community located to the northwest of Indianapolis’s downtown area, functioning as a space of racial solidarity and fulfilling a role that was interwoven throughout civil rights struggles and community outreach services for African Americans in the city. The church also served as a venue for the organization of local associations that were instrumental in the push to achieve better housing, education, and equal rights for African Americans. Both the Indianapolis NAACP chapter and Indiana State Federation of Colored Woman’s Clubs were established at Bethel.
Members renovated the church building and adjoining parsonage in 1974 in order to make more space for outreach activities. Bethel AME Church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. It is the only African-American church building in Indianapolis to receive that recognition.
Indianapolis’s oldest African-American church is still active in 2014, occupying the same site it did in 1869.
Reverend Carey A. Grady was assigned to Bethel AME Church as the Senior Pastor by John R. Bryant, Presiding Bishop of the Indiana South District AME Church, on October 24, 2009. The church has 313 members as of July 2014. Bethel facilitates several community-centered activities, including the Back-To-School Giveaway and Adopt-A-School Program, which supplies school materials for the entire student body of Flanner House Elementary School as well as $15 gift cards to teachers, and the Homeless Program, which provides free lunches for homeless individuals every Tuesday. The church is also a member of the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCan) and has served as headquarters for IndyCan’s Mass Transit Campaign since 2013.
“Colored Immigrants in Indiana: Their Character and Location.” The Indianapolis Leader, January 24, 1880. Pages 1-2. Accessed July 7, 2914. https://newspapers.library.in.gov/
Brown, Emma, member of Bethel A.M.E. Church. Interview by Melissa Burlock, 18 July 2013. Audio recording, IUPUI Special Collections and Archives, e-Archives, https://archives.iupui.edu/handle/2450/6957.
Grady, Carey A., Senior Pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church. Phone conversation with Melissa Burlock, 14 July 2014.
Kitchen, Inez, member of Bethel A.M.E. Interview by Melissa Burlock, 19 July 2013. Audio recording, IUPUI Special Collections and Archives, e-Archives, https://archives.iupui.edu/handle/2450/6959.
McConnell, William, World War II veteran and member of Bethel A.M.E. Church. Interview by Melissa Burlock, 21 July 2013. Audio recording, IUPUI Special Collections and Archives, e-Archives, https://archives.iupui.edu/handle/2450/6958.
Hale, Michelle D. “Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.” In The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, ed. David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, 318-319. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Hyatt, Susan B., Benjamin J. Linder, Margaret Baurley, and others. The Neighborhood of Saturdays: Memories of a Multi-Ethnic Community on Indianapolis’ South Side. Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2012. http://indiamond6.ulib.iupui.edu/cdm/ref/collection/NOS/id/2352.
Pierce, Richard B. Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005.
Thornbrough, Emma Lou. “African-Americans.” In The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, ed. David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, 5-14. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Warren, Stanley. “The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.” Traces (Summer 2007): 32–36.
“Above the Underground Railroad: Bethel AME Church.” Accessed July 8, 2014. http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground/in1.htm.
“Forged Through Fire: Bethel AME Church, Indianapolis Station AME Church, 1836-1869.” Accessed July 7, 2014. https://forgedthroughfire.wordpress.com/.
Indiana Historical Bureau. “June 20, 2009 – Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.” Accessed July 8, 2014. http://www.in.gov/history/BethelDed.htm.
NUVO Editors. “IndyCAN heralds mass transit bill passage.” Accessed July 14, 2014. http://www.nuvo.net/indianapolis/indycan-heralds-mass-transit-bill-passage/Content?oid=2784803#.UyJoWeddUQY