St. Pete celebrates AME Church founder

BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) churches all over the United States celebrated when news of Richard Allen, the founder and first bishop of the A.M.E. Church, would be commemorated on a Forever Stamp in the same year of the church’s 200-year anniversary.

The 39th stamp in the Black Heritage series, the official unveiling was held Feb. 2 in Philadelphia at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, the church Allen opened in 1794 and the first home of the A.M.E. denomination he founded in 1816.

In keeping with the celebration, Sat., Feb 27 Greater Mt. Zion AME Church, where the Rev. Clarence A. Williams presides over his flock, held a dedication ceremony for the City of St. Petersburg to commemorate this historic occasion.

Rev. Kenneth Irby officiated over the ceremony that saw the Presentation of Colors by Marine Corps League Detachment 57 and the National Anthem song by Deneen Wyman.

“This ought to be a day of memorial to doxology. We move from a period of historical recognition to a place of celebration,” said Irby.

Born into slavery in Delaware in 1760, Allen worked tirelessly to purchase his freedom. After making a name for himself as a traveling minister throughout the mid-Atlantic, he was asked to preach to black people at a Methodist church in Philadelphia.

He quickly rose to prominence as a civic leader, co-founding an organization to help black neighbors in need, rallying black Philadelphians to serve as aid workers during a yellow fever epidemic in 1793 and preparing the black community to defend the city during the War of 1812.

Eager to establish an independent black church, Allen purchased an old blacksmith’s shop and moved it to land he owned land at Sixth and Lombard Streets. Mother Bethel Church attracted hundreds of members all looking for a safe place to worship God.

“In founding this church he focused his efforts on creating a place where free blacks could worship without racial oppression and where slaves could find a measure of dignity,” said Mayor Rick Kriseman.

However, Allen spent years in conflict with white church leaders who sought to assert their control. At one point, they tried to sell the building out from under him, but as a successful businessman, he was able to buy it back at auction. After a campaign that included sit-ins and a judgment by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, the congregation secured its independence.

In 1816, Allen summoned other black Methodist leaders to Philadelphia, where together they founded the A.M.E. Church, electing and consecrating Allen as its first bishop.

Julia Boykin-Wilbert, officer in charge of St. Petersburg United States Postal Service Suncoast District, was on hand to explain how Allen was chosen to be the face of the 39th stamp in the Black Heritage series. She said the main criteria for an individual is that they must “portray an American experience that effects a worldwide audience.” Nominations can come from anyone and are forwarded to a committee.

The nomination for Allen was submitted about three years ago, which was timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the founding of the church.

As an activist he sought to end slavery, provided refuge for those escaping its chains, and organized black conventions. He wrote powerful political pamphlets and Mother Bethel was even a stop on the Underground Railroad.

“He was accredited with establishing the first successful economic boycott. Back in the 1830s he formed a society where individuals were only asked to purchase goods from farmers and merchants who had non slave labor. It was very successful,” said Boykin-Wilbert.

“Now I understand why pastors Williams and Irby and a lot of my A.M.E. friends are activist because the founder of the church was an activist back in the day when activism would get you dead,” said Pinellas County Commissioner Kenneth Welch.

Today, Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church stands on the site where Allen converted that old blacksmith’s shop more than two centuries ago. The denomination he founded now boasts more than 2.5 million members. His life — a legacy of determination, uplift, charity and faith — remains an inspiration to all Americans.

“This was the man that drew me to the A.M.E. Church. All of my people were Baptist. I was headed that way. Some way and somehow the A.M.E. Church captured me with their history,” said Rev. Williams.

Every year since 1978, the United States Postal Service has honored African-American leaders, inventors, activists, sports figures and culture shapers whose lives changed history. This year’s honoree influenced both Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr.

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