For more than 200 years, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and its parishioners have profoundly influenced African-American history in Western Pennsylvania.
Founded in 1808 as the African Church by James Coleman, George Coleman and Abraham Lewis, the congregation was first organized in a home on Front Street, today's First Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh.
After receiving an official charter from the Baltimore Conference of the AME Church in 1818, Bethel AME became the first African-American-based congregation in Pittsburgh.
In 1833, Bethel AME members the Rev. Lewis Woodson, Abraham Lewis, John Vashon and John Peck secured funding and opened The African School in the church's basement, Pittsburgh's first school for African-American children.
The Bethel AME congregation helped to advance education in the region and also advocated for African-American suffrage, civil rights and the abolition of slavery.
In Aug. 1841, Bethel AME hosted the inaugural Convention of the Colored Freemen of Pennsylvania, a statewide civil rights convention that focused on gaining voting rights for African-American men. Prominent church members Woodson, Vashon and Peck were named to the convention's executive committee.
These men and other church parishioners were also active abolitionists who often assisted freedom-seeking slaves as part of the Underground Railroad.
By the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, the Bethel AME Church was an ardent voice against slavery and hosted special prayer services to support the abolition of slavery in the U.S.
One such service likely occurred on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation on Dec. 31, 1862, which was called "Freedom's Eve." Like many African-American churches across the nation, Bethel AME members gathered to pray and await word on whether the proclamation had been signed by President Abraham Lincoln, which eventually happened the following afternoon on Jan. 1.
In 1872, Bethel AME relocated from Downtown to Wylie Avenue in the Hill District, and moved again in 1959 to its current location on Webster Avenue.
Considered to be the oldest African-American congregation in Western Pennsylvania, Bethel AME recently celebrated its historic roots with a "Freedom's Eve" service on Dec. 31, 2012, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Visitors to the Heinz History Center can learn more about African-American history and Western Pennsylvania abolitionism as part of the new long-term exhibition "From Slavery to Freedom." For more information: www.heinzhistorycenter.org.