On a cold, snowy morning recently, Cordelia Miller, a lifelong member of St. John AME Zion Church in Bethlehem, which was founded in 1894 and is believed to be the oldest African American congregation in the Lehigh Valley, was sitting in the church’s first floor room with pastor Rev. Gracher L. Selby and Winston Alozie, the church’s choir director. In front of them were a number of newspaper photographs, some dating back to the 1930s, from the church’s archives. The church is getting ready to celebrate its 120th anniversary this year.
While they were talking, Miller recalled a family story. In the 1930s, her father Robert Jenkins came north from South Carolina and got a job as foreman in the merchant mills department at Bethlehem Steel. Coming home to his mother-in-law’s house at Northampton Heights, where he lived with his brother and his wife, Thelma, he was stunned to see Eugene Gifford Grace, Bethlehem Steel’s lordly CEO, one of the richest men in America, munching on a piece of pound cake and sipping a glass of lemonade in front of the house next door.
When Jenkins asked if his wife realized who Grace was, she said she knew. Grace, she said, had just arranged the purchase of the long vacant house for the Ayers family, a couple he had recently employed to work at his home as his maid and chauffer. Jenkins’ wife said, when her mother saw Grace waiting for his chauffer to pick him up, she had offered him a piece of cake and lemonade, which he had accepted.
Miller’s family story is a brief historical snapshot of the many African Americans who founded St. John AME Zion; they came to Bethlehem as servants for wealthy Bethlehemites. Charles Schwab, for example, employed black people exclusively on his private railroad car, the Loretto.
But Grace and Schwab were apparently not the first wealthy Bethlehem men to hire black people as domestic help. By the time St. John AME Zion’s congregation was formed, there was already a small but well-settled black community in Bethlehem.
Yet no matter how you look at it, the year 1894 was not a good one for many African Americans. Almost all the hopes that the end of slavery had promised were disappearing. Segregation laws ruled the south, and two years later would be ratified by the now infamous “separate but equal” U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plessy vs. Ferguson.
Ida B. Wells, a courageous African-American journalist, would disclose that year that in 1893, 159 African-Americans had been lynched. While most of the lynchings were in the deep South, Georgia led the list with 24. Two were in Kansas, one was in New York and three were in Illinois, the land of Lincoln.
The north was not much better, where de facto segregation restricted blacks from owning a decent home or getting a job other than as domestic labor. Ethnic and racial stereotypes were common with the “lazy, shiftless black person” first among them on both sides of the Mason Dixon line.
The economy was in a shambles following the Panic of 1893, and federal troops were gunning down railroad strikers in Chicago’s Pullman strike. Helpless blacks found themselves in the middle, discriminated against by employers and attacked by some as strike breakers. But it was also in 1894 that a small group of black people in Bethlehem decided to do what they could to assert their identity as a community and as a people of faith.
They had been worshiping at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, but, by the informal segregation rules of the day, they were second class members of the congregation. “They all sat in the back of the church and they had to take communion last,” recalls Miller. “This is why they decided to form the church.” Miller also notes that relations between the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem and St. John are much more cordial today.
At 10 a.m. on August 6, 1894, the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas at Easton approved a charter for the establishment of a church that was to be called Saint John African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The congregation built a simple church on Pawnee Street in 1901, where they still worship to this day.
The first AME Zion congregation was founded in New York in the late 18th century by Pastor James Varick. According to Rev. Selby, the Bethlehem congregation took the name Zion to distinguish itself from the AME Church founded in Philadelphia by Richard Allen.
Miller notes that by the 1930s, when her father came to Bethlehem, many African Americans were Baptists. Her father, for example, was a member of the Second Baptist Church, Bethlehem, where he was a trustee for many years. It was Miller’s mother and grandmother who raised her at St. John AME Zion . “It is like an extended family for me,” she says. “It always placed a high value on that feeling.”
Miller remembers fondly pastor Wakefield Roberts, who in the 1950s and 60s, helped connect St. John with the nation’s blossoming civil rights movement. At that time St. John had a congregation of over 100. Miller notes that many of the first breakthroughs for black people in Bethlehem came from the small but mighty St. John AME Zion congregation.
Today the little church on Pawnee Street has been modernized some but still retains its original baptismal font and some of the original pews. “What I really like is it still feels like a family,” Miller says.