Lancaster County church has ties to influential moments in African American history

LANCASTER, Pa. (WHTM) — From the Underground Railroad to the Civil Rights Movement, for more than 200 years, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church has left its mark on American history.

Forming in 1817, Bethel AME Church has become a safe haven for African Americans during disruptive times in American history.

Reverend Edward Bailey, the church pastor, says the church was not only involved in the freedom of black people but also their economic empowerment and making sure they had fraternal organizations to help.

The church says former pastors were connected to the Underground Railroad. A women’s organization within the church, known as the tent sisters, made clothes for slaves and helped get people to freedom.

“They were about something else than just building a church. so they were part of the Underground Railroad where they increased the population of black folk in Philadelphia by six-fold,” Bailey said.

During the Civil War, several African American men from Bethel tried to join the Union Army but were denied. Many years into the war, they were finally accepted.

The remains of African American Civil War veterans rest in Bethel’s cemetery. Until the early 20th century, that cemetery was the only place where black people could be buried.

“Whatever racism is going on, whatever politics is going on, it’s not going to dehumanize others. We’re not going to limit the value that other people have. We’re going to see them as God wants us to see them. And people have value. They don’t have to be my color to have value,” Bailey said.

Throughout the 1800s, the church expanded education programs for African Americans. Their place of worship also survived an arson in 1879, and former pastor Alexander Stephens led a march for better jobs during the Civil Rights Movement.

“The African Methodist Church has always been an active participating church and has never really been liked by the community at large because of the stand it’s taken for Africans and those who are downtrodden in the community, and we’ve always been that voice,” Bailey said.

Today, the church is made up of 250 families and runs a food bank, clothing bank, and educational programs for the community.

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