Tour B 7. Vermont Street AME Church

elbert 7 27 1919

Meeting at Church July 27, 1918. Image Source: Bethel Archives

Vermont Street AME Church, a magnificent brick structure whose bell tower continues to mark the Indianapolis skyline, seemed a phoenix rising from the ashes of the fire and the trauma of the Civil War. The Indianapolis Station AME Church, was renamed the Vermont Street AME Church, reflecting its new location. Around the time of 1894 remodel, the church became known as  Bethel AME reflecting its preeminent place in a thriving black community with four AME congregations.The road for the congregation was long and far from smooth, with the church being forced to mortgage their dreams in order to build a new “safe place” and restore their position of influence in the African American community. Though the process of rebuilding was slow,  by the end of the nineteenth century, the church emerged as the leader of a vibrant African American community along Indiana Avenue.[1]

Bethel AME Church today.

Bethel AME Church today.

 

The Indianapolis Station congregation sold the Georgia Street property in 1866, looking for a “safe place” to build their new church.[2] They first purchased a lot at Michigan Street and Capitol Avenue in 1866, before selling that lot and purchasing the lot for the current Vermont Street location. [3] In 1867, the church signed a $10,400 contract with contractor Adam Busch for the construction of the Vermont Street building. The construction was beset with financial and structural problems from the beginning. The church Trustees believed they were defrauded by Busch who provided soft bricks for the structure, which were structurally unsound and did not meet the specifications of the contract. The building was completed in 1869, with the contract ending up in court. Leaders of the AME Indiana Conference and Vermont Street’s AME Church’s Rev. W. T. Trevan helped the congregation straighten out the finances and take control of the building.[4]

The Vermont Street AME Church, literally built on shaky foundations, struggled to rebuild their congreation during the 1870 and 1880s. Financial difficulties forced the congregation to sell the building on July 24, 1880, facing local and national embarrassment.  The congregation rebounded, making a financial appeal not only to the congreatgion, but also the city and national African American community. They were able to redeeming the building in 1881.[5]

1950 front

Bethel AME, c. 1950. Note the entrance and the parish house before the rennovation.
Image Source: Bethel Archives

With the growth of the Indianapolis African American community and strong leadership, Vermont Street AME Church witnessed tremendous growth, once again serving as the center of a vibrant African American community.[6] By 1887, the church was able to recover enough, in both prestige and finances, to entertain the AME Bishop’s Council. The congregation shined on the national scale entertaining the 1888 AME General Conference, with over 300 national leaders converging on the city.[7] Rev. T.W. Henderson, driving this period of tremendous growth, planned for the expansion and renovation of the church in 1894, enlarging the sanctuary and parish hall.[8] The city of Indianapolis was able to support four AME congregation; Bethel was instrumental in the founding not only of Allen Chapel, but also Coppin Chapel, Wallace, now Providence, AME Church.[9]

Bethel AME continued to be a leader in state and national civil rights work, began with the Colored Conventions held before the Civil War. The church was instrumental in the founding of the NAACP, Indiana State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, and the Ethical Culture Society.[10]

Bethel AME acontinued their strong commitment to education into the post-bellum period. Though Indiana law provided for universal primary education after 1869, Dr. Samuel Elbert assisted the church in establishing day school and kindergartens to educate the parishioners as well as provide childcare for working mothers.  Connecting to the antebellum work of leaders such as Elijah Weaver in publishing the litterary magazine The Repository,  Rev D. A. Graham helped organized the Allen Christian Endeavor League in 1904 that was  committed to education and arts for AME members,  suppling scripture and doctrine to the national AME Church.[11]

Other prominent leaders who had served as pastor included John M. Townsend who served as Secretary of Missions, R.R. Downs editor of Voice of the Missions. National black leader Charles S. Spivey served as an interim Pastor at Vermont Street, later being elected Secretary-Treasurer of the AME Sunday School Union. [12]

Ministers during the twentieth century have continued the commitment to social justice, creating community through the church when faced with discrimination.  Over the years, the church has run a burial insurance, food pantry, credit union, prenatal and infant care, adult day care, counseling and other services. Dr. Charles T H Watkins, beginning in 1957, developing programs to feed the hungry and counseling, endorsed by the larger Indianapolis Community, and later served as the President of the Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation. [13]

5. Vermont Street AME Church

Forge History

Forge History

Discover Black Heritage on your next vacation.Visit the Indiana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs Historical Marker.

[1] The Christian Recorder, November 16, 1867.

[2] Warren, “The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” 33.

[3] Ibid., 34.

[4] Ibid. “A Brief History of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” typescript, n.d., “Bethel AME- Indianapolis Vertical File,” Indiana Landmarks, Indianapolis, Indiana.

[5] Warren, “The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” 34; The Christian Recorder, November 25, 1880; April 14, 1881.

[6] There is a rich historiography on Indianapolis in this period, see Indiana’s African-American Heritage: Essays from Black History News & Notes (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1993); Earline Rae Ferguson, A Community Affair: African-American Women’s Club Work in Indianapolis, 1879-1917 (Indiana University, 1997); Emma Lou Thornbrough, Since Emancipation: A Short History of Indiana Negroes, 1863-1963 (Indiana Division, American Negro Emancipation Centennial Authority, 1964); Richard B. Pierce, Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970 (Indiana University Press, 2005); Paul Mullins, Modupe Labode and Lewis Jones, “Consuming Lines of Difference: The Politics of Wealth and Poverty Along the Color Line,” Historical Archaeology 45, no. 3 (2011): 140–150.

[7] Warren, “The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” 34; The Christian Recorder, October 27,1887; April 19, 1888; Daniel A. Payne, Recollections of 70 Years (Arno Press, 1888); Charles Killian, “Daniel A Payne and the AME General Conference of 1888; A Display of Contrasts,” Negro History Bulletin 32, no. November (1969): 11–14.

[8] The current façade elements date to a c.1960 remodel, but the building retains enough historic integrity to be listed on the National Register for its significance to African American history in Indianapolis. Warren, “The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” 34; “Bethel AME Church,” National Register of Historic Places, Divison of Historic Preservation and Archeology, Indianapolis, Indiana. The current façade dates to a c.1960 remodel.

[9] Warren, “The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” 34.

Parishioners in front of Bethel AME Church, c. 1965. Image Source: Bethel Archives

Parishioners in front of Bethel AME Church, c. 1965. Image Source: Bethel Archives

[10] Ibid.; “A Brief History of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

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