Honoring Black History Week 1 – Celebrating Our Historic Black Churches

February 4, 2021

The term “Black church” is used to describe Protestant churches that have predominately Black congregations. More broadly, the Black church is both a specific religious culture and a socio-religious force that has shaped protest movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Origins of the Black Church

The Black church in the United States can be traced back to the enslavement of Black people in the 18th and 19th centuries. Enslaved African people brought to the Americas by force came with a variety of religions, including traditional spiritual practices. But the system of enslavement was built on the dehumanization and exploitation of people, and this could only be achieved by depriving those enslaved of meaningful connections to land, ancestry, and identity. The dominant White culture of the time accomplished this through a system of forced acculturation, which included forced religious conversion.

Missionaries would also use promises of freedom to convert enslaved African people. Many of those enslaved were told they could return to Africa as missionaries themselves if they converted. While it was easier for polytheistic beliefs to merge with Catholicism, which ruled in areas such as the Spanish colonies, than the Protestant Christian denominations that dominated early America, enslaved populations constantly read their own narratives into Christian texts and incorporated elements of their previous faiths into Christian frameworks. Out of this cultural and religious acculturation, early versions of the Black church were born.

Exodus, The Curse of Ham and “Black Theodicy”

Black pastors and their congregations maintained their autonomy and identity by reading their own histories into Christian texts, unlocking new routes for self-realization. For example, many Black churches identified with the Book of Exodus’s story of the prophet Moses leading the Israelites’ escape from enslavement in Egypt. The story of Moses and his people spoke to hope, promise, and the benevolence of a God which was otherwise absent in the systematic and oppressive structure of enslavement. White Christians worked to justify enslavement through the employment of a White savior complex, which in addition to dehumanizing Black people, infantilized them. Some went so far as to claim that Black people had been cursed and enslavement was the necessary, God-intended punishment.

Seeking to maintain their own religious authority and identity, Black scholars developed their own branch of theology. “Black theodicy” refers specifically to theology that answers for the reality of anti-Blackness and the suffering of our ancestors. This is done in a number of ways, but primarily by re-examining suffering, the concept of free-will, and God’s omnibenevolence. Specifically, they examined the following question: If there is nothing that God does that is not good in and of itself, why would He inflict such immense pain and suffering on Black people?

Questions like this one presented by Black theodicy led to the development of another type of theology, which was still rooted in accounting for the suffering of Black people. It is perhaps the most popular branch of Black theology, even if its name is not always well known: Black Liberation Theology.

Black Liberation Theology and Civil Rights

Black Liberation Theology strove to incorporate Christian thought into the Black community’s legacy as a “protest people.” By recognizing the social power of the church, along with the safety it offered within its four walls, the Black community was able to explicitly bring God into the daily liberation struggle.

This was famously done within the Civil Rights Movement. Although Martin Luther King, Jr., is most often associated with the Black church in the context of civil rights, there were many organizations and leaders during that time who leveraged the church’s political power. And although King and other early civil rights leaders are now famous for their nonviolent, religiously- rooted tactics, not every member of the church embraced nonviolent resistance. On July 10, 1964, a group of Black men led by Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas and Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick founded The Deacons For Defense and Justice in Jonesboro, Louisiana. The purpose of their organization? To protect members of the Congress For Racial Equity (CORE) against violence from the Ku Klux Klan.

The Deacons became one of the first visible self-defense forces in the South. Although self-defense was not new, the Deacons were one of the first groups to embrace it as part of their mission.

The power of Black Liberation Theology within the Black church did not go unnoticed. The church itself came to serve as a place of strategy, development, and reprieve. It has also been a target of attacks by numerous hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan.

The history of the Black church is a long one. The church continues to redefine itself to meet the demands of new generations; there are those within its ranks who work to remove factors of social conservatism and align it with new movements. No matter what position it takes in the future, it cannot be denied that the Black church has been a pivotal force within Black American communities for hundreds of years and that these generational memories are not likely to fade.

In celebration of black history the Milwaukee Times and the Black Excellence Awards is honoring four of our local historical Black Churches. They are:

1. St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church
1616 W. Atkinson Ave. Milwaukee, WI 53206
Founded: est. 1869
Current Pastor: Dr. Joy L. Gallmon

Known as A.M.E. for short, St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal was the first African American church established in Milwaukee by Ezekiel Gillespie. Also referred to as the “Church of the Anvil,” the first A.M.E. church service was held in a blacksmith shop. The anvil serves as a symbol and expression of the history and faith of the congregation. This is the oldest African-American congregation in Wisconsin.

2. Calvary Baptist Church
2959 N. Teutonia Ave. Milwaukee, WI 53206
Founded: est. 1912
Current Pastor: Rev. Dr. John R. Walton, Jr.

Calvary Baptist Church traces its beginning in 1895 to a small mission church called Mt. Olive Baptist when the black population of Milwaukee was 551. Rev. J.D. Odom had attempted to organize a church prior to 1895, but was unsuccessful. Thus, Alexander W. Herron, Thomas L. Jackson, and Alfred Copeland organized Mt. Olive Baptist, the first Black Baptist church in Milwaukee. The congregation moved to 227 Seventh Street and called Rev. J. D. Odom, in 1897 to be the first pastor. Established in 1895 as Mt. Olive Baptist Church, Rev. George J. Fox was pastor when the name was legally changed to Calvary Baptist Church on August 26, 1912 due to legal difficulties with taxes and related issues. In 1913 Calvary relocated to 414 W. Cherry Street. Circumstances for Calvary Baptist Church greatly improved and in 1922, the pastor and members purchased the edifice at 1727 N. 4th Street and the adjacent home at 1737 N. 4th Street for the parsonage.

By 1965, the membership of Calvary had grown to over 1,000 members, and more space was needed, even though an annex had been added. Under Rev. Dr. Melvin James Battle, the mortgages had been liquidated on the church building, the parsonage, and the annex to the church; therefore preparations were being made to build a larger edifice. Rev. Walter B. Hoard was the pastor when the groundbreaking took place on August 3, 1969, and the congregation moved to the new church facility at 2959 N. Teutonia Avenue in 1970. During Rev. Dr. Leary’s pastorate, the mortgage was burned and an elevator was installed.

3. Mt Zion Missionary Baptist Church
2207 N. 2nd St. Milwaukee, WI 53212
Founded: est. 1919
Current Pastor: Rev. Louis E. Sibley, III

On Sunday, May 1,1919, a group of God’s people, who were divinely inspired, organized themselves in order to fulfill a promise made to God to teach and preach His Gospel. The result of this organized body was the founding of a church located on Fifth Street, just north of State Street, later to be known as Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

The following people met to organize the church that we now call Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church: Rev. Winchester Boyd, Howard Harper, Walter Williams, and Rev. I.A. Coppage was selected to act as Moderator, and after prayer and the reading of the Scripture, the church was organized on the letter of the following: Brother Charles Stokes, Sister Claudia Stokes, Sister Sylvia Miller, Omar Jackson, and B.G. Gordon. The five members called the Rev. I.A. Coppage as the first pastor of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Dorothy May Flowers, eight years old, was the first candidate for baptism who was followed by William Jackson and Henry Nance. Some of the deacons were Charles Stokes, B.G. Gordon, Henry Nance, William Jackson W. Reese, and Mr. Curtiss, who served as trustee also. Two of the first trustees were L.S. Smith and Julius Harp. The director of the first choir was Mrs. Gladys Butcher. The “Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church” was suggested by Brother Stokes and Sister Jackson, and it was then accepted by the body.

4. Tabernacle Community Baptist Church
2500 W. Medford Ave. Milwaukee, WI 53206
Founded: est. 1922
Current Pastor: Rev. Dr. Donna Childs

Brought into being by a vibrant faith and enduring hope of our spiritual antecedents, the Tabernacle Community Baptist Church has been a citadel of hope for Milwaukee and its people for 97 years. The early band of believers gave a new estimation of black Christians when they organized the congregation under the name of Saint Paul Baptist Church, at a time when there were only a few Baptist churches for African Americans in the city. Bearing witness to a divine impulse, an aspiring minister, Reverend Hooks, cast a grand vision and long arc for our charter members, laying a firm foundation for the new assembly in 1922. He would be succeeded by Reverend Johnson in 1926, after just four years of leadership; and the Reverend R. H. Foy, would assume the pastorate upon the completion of Reverend Johnson’s six-year ministry, in 1932. It was during this period that the congregation changed its name to Tabernacle Baptist Church.

5. Antioch Missionary Baptist Church
2033 W. Congress St. Milwaukee, WI 53209
Founded: est. 1946
Current Pastor: Rev. Victor Manns

The Antioch Missionary Baptist Church was organized October 8, 1946 by the Reverend Louis Samuel Beauchamp, with only three members, in a one-room building at 1844 North 7th Street. Others who participated in the organization of Antioch were Reverend Charles H. Brumfield, pastor of Greater Galilee Missionary Baptist Church and Moderator of the General Baptist State Associate of Wisconsin; Reverend J.L. Williams, pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church; Reverend M.C. Ward, pastor of the Mount Olive Baptist Church; Reverend L.C. Lampkins, pastor of the Mount Erea Baptist Church; Dr. M. J. Battles, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church; and the State Missionary.

After a brief review of Reverend Beauchamp’s life and religious background, the council decided to proceed with the organization of Antioch. The Reverend George Beauchamp, father of Reverend L.S. Beauchamp, served as evangelist. Following the completion of the organization service, the State Missionary extended the invitation and approximately eighteen others were added to the newly organized church.