The Brown University News Bureau
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1995-1996 index

Distributed October 20, 1995
Contact: Linda Mahdesian

East Side Underground Railroad site to be commemorated Oct. 28

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The former site of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church will be commemorated with a plaque during a ceremony at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 28, at 193 Meeting St. The site is now a tree-lined walkway to the Grimshaw-Gudewicz Building, near the Sarah Doyle Women's Center on the Brown University campus. The plaque will be unveiled during the ceremony, which will be preceded by a parade from the current Bethel Church, 30 Rochambeau Ave. During the early 19th century, escaped slaves traveled via the Underground Railroad from the South through Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and into Rhode Island, with the Bethel Church as their destination.

The parade will begin at approximately 10 a.m. and will follow a route from Rochambeau to Camp Street, to Olney Street, to Hope Street, ending on Meeting Street. The parade route will be closed to traffic. Between 300 and 500 people are expected to participate, representing Bethel and other affiliated A.M.E. congregations and various community organizations. Bethel's pastor, the Rev. Raymond Hill, is coordinating the event. Brown University Provost James Pomerantz will speak on behalf of the University.

The site is part of the "Rhode Island Afro-American Heritage Trail," a project of the Rhode Island Historical Society and the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. The Meeting Street location was selected for the first of 40 plaques to be installed throughout the state because it is the site of the oldest black church in Rhode Island.

The plaque ceremony and parade are part of a year-long celebration of the 200th anniversary of the founding of Bethel A.M.E. Church in 1795. The church is also presenting an anniversary banquet at 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28, at the Rhode Island Convention Center, to which the public is invited. (For ticket information, call the church at 401/272-9186.) The keynote speaker for that event will be Bishop Philip Cousin, presiding prelate of the First Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The 25-member Brown University Gospel Choir will perform at that event. Also at the banquet will be Charles Blockston, author of The Underground Railroad. The Rev. Gregory Leonard of Long Island will preach on Oct. 29 at 3:30 p.m. at a closing ceremony at the church.

History of Bethel A.M.E. Church

1795 is considered the official starting date of the African Freedmen's Society in Rhode Island, which later became Bethel A.M.E. Church. A former slave, Ichabod Northrup, was among the founders of the church; Northrup fought in the Revolutionary War.

During those early years, men and women of color were ostracized, criticized, arrested and even convicted of the crime of organizing a church of their own. But Bethel continued to prosper, meeting in the homes of members as well as in a Quaker meeting house on North Main Street. When one meeting place was removed by the authorities, it was replaced by another, and sometimes two or three. As the significance of the church began to grow, its reputation as a monument of freedom and destination on the Underground Railroad reached many slaves in the South.

The lot on which the church was eventually located was purchased in 1820, and a building was constructed on the site in 1866. After 95 years of worship in the building, the walls began to crumble and the congregation grew smaller. In 1961 the property was sold to Brown University and the church purchased its building on Rochambeau. The first service at that site was conducted in February 1962.