bethel fire karen

“Forged through Fire: Bethel AME Church” is a digital walking tour connecting the landscape of today’s downtown Indianapolis with the Nineteenth Century social justice efforts of the Indianapolis Station AME Church, now known as Bethel Cathedral.[1] In the digital age, you can move through this tour on the streets with your mobile device or from your home computer. The Indianapolis Station AME Church was “forged through fire,” with racial violence and discrimination shaping the congregation into a community of faith, united by a commitment to social justice.[2] The congregation withstood fire in the burning of their church, mob violence and the Civil War. The AME Church, formed in Philadelphia in a converted blacksmith’s shop in 1787, is symbolized by the anvil and the cross. Anvils, representing the spirit of the founding fathers of the church, are exposed to the heat of the furnace and the force of the blacksmith’s hammer, but not only withstand these tests but use their stability to shape metal.[3] Members of the Indianapolis Station AME Church forged an African American community of faith, which was committed to an idea of racial progress through various aspects of social protest.[4] Social Protest could include activities as diverse as establishing schools, establishing literary societies and journals, organizing and advocating for civil rights, and assisting enslaved people on their journey to freedom.[5] Placing the church at the center of the story has the potential to recover the interplay of forces on the shaping of the congregation, as well as demonstrating the importance of violence and legal conflicts in shaping the character of community.[6] Paradoxically, this community of faith seemed to only be able to thrive due to its segregated nature; however, at the smae time inter-racial cooperation was required for its survival.[7]

AME Logo Image Source: AME Church

AME Logo
Image Source: AME Church

Racially motivated actions of historic arsonists and more recent urban renewal activists attempted to remove the landmarks of this history from the landscape.  Other landmarks have been buried under concrete in the name of “progress.” The first Indianapolis Station AME Church and “colored town” is under the Indianapolis Convention Center and the African American  neighborhoods lie below the surface of IUPUI Campus and Interstate I-65.  Digital techniques allow us to begin to envision these lost worlds by layering the words, images and other remnants of the past on our current streetscapes. Understanding the historical context helps fills in some of the missing pieces.  As this tour takes you along the beautiful Central Canal, try to imagine it instead sites of mob violence where two worlds clashed. As you move along the canal, remember that you are also moving through time– from the age of first pioneers who built the Canal through the Civil War and then to more recent efforts to both preserve and destroy traces of this history.

Tour A: Indianapolis Station and the Underground Railroad takes a new look at the Underground Railroad, defined as the “effort of enslaved African Americans to gain their freedom by escaping bondage.”[8]  Embracing this National Park Service definition reveals new violent and heroic stories.  This definition not only shifts our focus from rumors of tunnels to courageous individuals, and from a story of escape to a more complex concept of “building freedom.” It seemed that uncovering the details of the building, destruction and the reconstruction of Indianapolis Station could be a vehicle to uncover this “underground.” The Bethel AME Church is listed as a part of the National Park Service Network to Freedom, being one of only three listed properties for the state of Indiana.  The church is a also a participant in the Indiana Freedom Trails, the Indiana state organization dedicated “to locate, to identify, to verify, to protect, to preserve, and to promote those Indiana sites and routes as part of the National Underground Railroad network.”[9]

Tour B: Indianapolis Station and the Civil War continues the story of “building freedom” into the era of Emancipation and the Civil War.  The tour starts with the July 7, 1864 burning of the Indianapolis Station AME Church and tries to answers the seemingly simple question, “who burned the church and why did they do it?” To try to understand the fire, the tour explores the implications the Civil War and Reconstruction in Indianapolis for African Americans. Emancipation was not simply proclaimed by the government,  but required a period of political, legal, economic and social transitions in both the North and the South.  With seeking “self-emancipation,” building free communities in the North, and serving in the Civil War Army and agitating for civil rights African Americans built their own lives of freedom.[11]  The tour explores the costs of freedom, as the congregation lost not only their church but the lives of many congregants.

This tour can be seen as tracing the long “road to freedom,” not only for the people of Indianapolis Station, but also those they inspired and helped along their journeys.[12] The telling of this “uncomfortable history” presents a challenge, as this story has many heroes and just as many villains.[13] It is important to present complex pictures of the racism in Indiana while not minimizing the impact of the racial violence.   This project is part of a partnership between the Public History program at IUPUI and the Bethel AME Church.

Rev. Carey Grady, Senior Pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Indianapolis, IN shares the story of how this 19th century house of worship was founded. Video Courtesy:

[1] For people not familiar with the naming of AME churches, as certainly many Whites were at the time, the term “Indianapolis Station” would no doubt have connotations of the Underground Railroad. Stanley Warren, “The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” Traces (Summer 2007): 32–36.

[2] Religious and Community Scholar Adam Dinham defines “a community of faith” as the “staff, buildings, volunteers, networks, values and skills which can be ‘harnessed’ in key community domains, especially the provision of welfare and social services, extended forms of participative neighborhood governance, and initiatives for community cohesion.” Adam Dinham, “What Is a ‘Faith Community’?,” Community Development Journal 46, no. 4 (March 14, 2010): 526–541.

[3] For a detailed account of the founding of the AME Church, see Julius Bailey, Race Patriotism: Protest and Print Culture in the AME Church (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2012); Richard S. Newman, Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers (New York: New York University Press, 2008); Clarence Earl Walker, A Rock in a Weary Land: The African Methodist Episcopal Church During the Civil War and Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982); Ronald Palmer,  “AME Bishop William Paul Quinn” Notes Towards A Bibliographical Chronology of an American Original,” The AME Church Review CXX, no. 395 (2004): 40–61.

[4] Warren, “The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church;”  Robert A. Orsi, Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape (Indiana University Press, 1999); Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (Princeton University Press, 2005); James Oliver Horton, Free People of Color: Inside the African American Community (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993).

[5] Stephen Ward Angell, Anthony B. Pinn,  Social Protest Thought in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1862-1939, (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000).

[6] David J. Bodenhamer and Randall T. Shepard, The History Of Indiana Law (Ohio University Press, 2006); Lawrence Meir Friedman and Harry N. Scheiber, American Law and the Constitutional Order: Historical Perspectives (Harvard University Press, 1988), 191–193; Roberta Senechal, The Sociogenesis of a Race Riot: Springfield, Illinois, in 1908 (University of Illinois Press, 1990), 4; Leonard P. Curry, The Free Black in Urban America, 1800-1850: The Shadow of the Dream (University of Chicago Press, 1986).

[7]Horton and Horton, Slavery And Public History; James Oliver Horton, Free People of Color: Inside the African American Community (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993); Bruce Biglow, “The Cultural Geography of African Americans in Antebellum Indiana,” Black History News and Notes no. (2008): 4–7;  Paul R. Griffin, “A Brief Account of the Development and Work of African Methodism in Ohio and Indiana, 1830-1865,” Black History News and Notes 23 (November 1985): 5–8; Walker, A Rock in a Weary Land; Daniel A. Payne, Recollections of 70 Years (Arno Press, 1888); L. C. Rudolph, Hoosier Faiths: a History of Indiana Churches & Religious Groups (Indiana University Press, 1995).

[11] There is a large body of literature on free black communities in the North, see Angel and Pinn  Social Protest Thought in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1862-1939; Julius Bailey, Race Patriotism; David W. Blight and Brooks D. Simpson, Union and Emancipation (Kent State University Press, 1997); Horton and Horton, In Hope of Liberty; Patrick Rael, Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Rita Roberts, Evangelicalism and the Politics of Reform in Northern Black Thought, 1776-1863 (Louisiana State University Press, 2011).

[13] Horton and Horton, Slavery And Public History.


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