Mother Bethel African Methodist episcopal (AMe) Church traces its origins to the journey of Richard Allen, who was born into slavery in 1760 and first held in bondage by Pennsylvania judge Benjamin Chew. After he was sold to a farmer in Dover, Delaware, Allen was converted to the Methodist faith by an itinerant preacher in 1777. Allen traveled, preached to many, and converted some before he was able to buy his freedom in Delaware at age twenty. Allen’s preaching brought him to the attention of white Methodist elders, who brought him to Philadelphia in 1786 to preach to the black members of St. George’s Methodist Church, whose congregation was segregated. But hostility grew between the white and black parishioners. When black worshippers, including Absalom Jones, were forcibly removed one day during prayer, Allen and Jones and their congregation withdrew from the church. Allen went on to preach in common areas in black neighborhoods, gathering a significant following.
Thus an important organization was established in 1787 under the leadership of Jones and Allen: the Free African Society, the first mutual aid society formed in America by blacks, for blacks. Allen left the Society a few years later due to religious differences, but continued working with Jones and the community. With growing support he purchased a building and founded the new Bethel Methodist Church, which officially opened in 1794. The congregation worked to abolish slavery, assist freed slaves, end the colonization movement by which free blacks would be resettled in Africa, and improve education for African American children and adults. By the early 1800s Bethel was Philadelphia’s largest black church, and in 1816, it was declared legally independent from St. George’s Methodist Church, which had sought to control it from the beginning. Allen promptly called a meeting of black churches, which led to the establishment of the African Methodist episcopal Church, the first African American denomination. This gave black Christians a strong institutional voice and a clear sense of identity and community.
In the early nineteenth century, Philadelphia had the largest and most prosperous black population in the north. The neighborhood of Washington Square was a stronghold for this thriving black community. From the churches, the community developed to include schools, newspapers, insurance companies, Masonic lodges, literary societies, libraries, women’s groups, and dancing societies. But from the 1830s until the Civil War, Philadelphia became increasingly segregated, and the racial, economic, and religious unrest led to riots and violence, mainly targeting blacks. Even after Allen’s death in 1831, Mother Bethel and other black institutions helped the community endure.
As its congregation grew, Mother Bethel continued its social service efforts. During the Civil War era, its basement became a stop on the underground Railroad. Notable abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, spoke from its pulpit. After the Civil War, a new (and current) church, designed by Hazelhurst & Huckel in a Romanesque Revival style, was built in 1889 on the site. in the 1900s, thousands of southern blacks came to Philadelphia in search of a better life and joined the Mother Bethel community. In the 20th century, the congregation continued to expand in size and influence, as the denomination grew rapidly on an international scale. Mother Bethel continues to maintain its presence on a piece of land that is the longest continuously held by African Americans. Until recently, the congregation still included descendants of escaped enslaved Africans who had been assisted by the church. The community is presently vibrant, remaining connected to its history through the Historical Commission and the Historical Society of Mother Bethel Church, which provides academic services, guided tours of its own on-site Richard Allen Museum, and care for its holdings.
Research: Sarah L. Hunter
Site Photos: Joseph E.B. Elliott
Constellation is a metaphor for our fragmentary yet immediate relationship to history, particularly with regard to the African American “quest for freedom” and its attendant mythologies. An exploration of Philadelphia’s underground Railroad, the installation maps associations from Mother Bethel AMe, which was a shelter space for fleeing enslaved Africans, to 21st-century narratives, symbols, and desires. The 1849 story of Harriet Tubman following the north Star to freedom from Maryland to Philadelphia, which describes the secret messages and networks that were thought to direct her journey, is source material for the project. Historians have since determined that the use of hidden signs to indicate safe houses or danger along the freedom trail—a coded quilt flung over a fence, a lit lantern in a window, a spiritual sung in a field—is largely myth, yet such mythmaking and storytelling are not only compelling points of connection to history, but also symbols of the real adversities endured by African Americans in their struggle for freedom and equality.
For Sanford Biggers, Tubman’s pursuit of the north Star conjured an image of the underground Railroad network laid out like a constellation across Philadelphia, invisible by day, and “visible” by night. Installed in the sanctuary of Mother Bethel, Constellation is composed of disparate elements that intersect at various points of narrative. A star map, plotting many of the confirmed locations of safe houses and significant events along the underground Railroad, posits Mother Bethel as the north Star. This map was editioned and offered as a free limited multiple to visitors. Antique quilts hanging in the sanctuary also reference the North Star story, and represent the shroud of silence that covers many issues of race relations in this country today. Each quilt features a “star” swatch, whose points are formed by a historic woodcut image of slave-ship hulls with bodies laid out like cordwood. The matrices formed by the quilts’ patchwork, as well as their iconography, echo and are amplified by the stained-glass windows of the church. Both surfaces form constellations of meaning through intertextuality, as the Star of Bethlehem in glass becomes abstracted into the north Star, which in the swatch becomes a symbol of human subjugation and physical bondage. Biggers provided a sample swatch for each viewer to take away, as a reminder of the actions and language, both overt and covert, that continue to define the boundaries of freedom today.
Co-Producer: Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia
Support for development and planning of this project has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative. Key funding also provided by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation.
Sanford Biggers draws on black American experience, conceptualism and process art, ethnographic objects, eastern spiritualism and popular icons. His multidisciplinary, multimedia installations plumb the cultural imagination, destabilizing visual and sensual representations. Particular and meaningful historical contexts are often recalled, made present or made strange. Viewers engage with his work through performance, in a theatrical activation of the space, and investigation, by teasing out his constellations of reference. Born in Los Angeles and currently based in new York, Biggers received an MFA from the Art institute of Chicago in 1999. As a young art student, he was inspired by what is now termed Black Romanticism (artists including Ernie Barnes, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and John Biggers) and Surrealism (René Magritte, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí). Biggers worked toward reconciling these disparate, often contradictory influences by focusing on their surprising points of contact, foreshadowing his later practice. Throughout, his work has combined the contingencies of experience with social critique, enigma, humor, and improvisation.
Biggers has exhibited internationally at venues including Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany; ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland; Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, California; ARCuS Project Foundation, ibaraki, Japan; and the Art in General/trafo Gallery eastern european exchange in Budapest, Hungary. His awards include the Creative Time Travel Grant, Creative Capital Project Grant, New York Foundation for the Arts Award in performance art/multimedia work, Art Matters Grant, and the Lambent Fellowship. He is an assistant professor at Columbia university and was a 2009 Artist in Residence at Harvard university.