Historic Preservation Feature is a series of articles on the efforts to save and reuse historic buildings, districts and sites in Pennsylvania.

One problem with the construction, or reconstruction, of black history is the scarcity of original manuscripts, particularly those from the black church which traditionally has been a center of black activity. Because few records remain, misconceptions about the lives and attitudes of blacks have often led to a distortion of their history. The reason that few records exist, however, is not because all free blacks or slaves were illiterate (one of the misconceptions), but because quite often churches were destroyed – fre­quently by fire.

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, located at 119 North Tenth Street in Reading, Pennsylvania, is an exception. A handful of free blacks founded the church in 1834 and, three years later, built a brick structure, the bulk of which still remains. The history of the church’s early develop­ment, along with an account of church activities up to 1860, was carefully recorded by the founders themselves. Since the brick church building pro­vided some measure of a fireproof structure, the ledgers were preserved. By the same token, in an age of “urban renewal,” there emerged among the members of Old Bethel a keen interest in saving and restoring the building, an interest which led to having the church placed on the National Register of Historic Places in November 1979.

Why is this building so important to black people in Reading and be­yond? There are three basic reasons. First, the building will be a source of pride; second, the church historically provided a moral standard by which black people defined themselves; and third, the building can and will be used as an Afro-American cultural center.

The red-bricked Victorian facade of Old Bethel has a beauty and charm all its own. The real beauty of the church for black people, however, goes beyond the actual structure itself. Knowing that what is seen was built over a century ago by a few free blacks, handicapped by limited resources, swells black pride. It serves as a reminder of the character, skills, self-reliance and sanguinity of people struggling against odds which today are hard to imag­ine. The restoration of the building becomes even more significant in the light of the current trend to restore and plan expensive and quaint “histori­cal neighborhoods,” which frequently results in displacing black people from their inner-city roots. A line from an often sung hymn best captures the symbolism of the building: “t’was grace that brought us safe thus far, and grace will take us home.”

More importantly, the Old Bethel Church in Reading, as did the black church throughout the nation, provided a forum in which black people ex­pressed their political views, exercised their social prerogatives and vented their spiritual values. Early in the 1830s blacks in Reading used the church to hold temperance meetings, as manifested by the following notice in the Berks and Schuylkill Journal, July 5, 1834: ” … there will be held … , on Sunday the 13th instant at 3 o’clock P.M., a Public Meeting of Colored People, and those friendly to the cause, for the purpose of Constituting a Temperance Society of Colored People.” In addition to the temperance movement, churched black people also were caught up in the question of the colonization movement aimed at sending all or part of the black popu­lation of the U.S. to Africa or Central America. There were those who no doubt took the negative view set forth by Richard Allen, founder and first Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Others certainly must have sided with the proview espoused by Rev. Solomon Hood, who served the Reading congregation and personally spent some time in Liberia.

Another significant contribution made by the founders of Bethel was to use the facilities to establish a church school. One must not be misled by the connotation of the adjective “church.” To be sure, religious values were taught using the scriptures as a basis for learning; but equally important, the school offered such secular subjects as spelling, reading, writing and music. Since blacks had been excluded from the growing private schools and segre­gated from the early public schools, students and teachers alike took Bethel Church School very seriously. Church leaders and elected officers main­tained strict discipline, gave final examinations and, to mix in a little plea­sure, held annual picnics. The final exam became part of an annual celebra­tion climaxed with a speaker and performances by students. Perhaps the following poem written by one of the students reflects not only the content of materials being taught, but also bow students felt about the school itself.

This Association may it live
When its enemies shall die.
And may it now as always give
Good laws to be governed by.

May it rise until midnoon.
It shall in Glory glow.
And there to stand not fall soon,
And on earth no bounds to know.

Let her aim be high and fair,
Her motives good and pure.
The Laws plain and not severe,
Progress will be hers sure.

Then members do not falter,
But stand together strong.
Let nothing your purpose alter,
Be a noble Godlike throng.

Towering far above its foes,
Soaring higher and higher up.
May nothing prevent (or) oppose,
To stop its course abrupt.

The pride expressed in this poem has a communal element transcending its time of writing because there exists today a certain pride not only in black cultural heritage, but in the building itself – thus, the desire to preserve it. Members of the current congregation plan to make it a living monument by displaying artifacts of the past as well as presenting the performing arts of the present. In addition, the facilities may be used to bring closer to the neighborhood such existing social services as day care. The building has a further potential as a learning center. For example, existing documents could be microfilmed and made available, with proper reading equipment, for further research on blacks in Berks County. Indeed, this idea may work as a magnet to attract more documents which today may simply be collect­ing dust in someone’s attic.

It is hoped, finally, that the pride and enthusiasm to restore Old Bethel will transcend Bethel A.M E.’s membership, spreading to the entire black community and, for that matter, into the white community as well. That is the way it should be, for the rich legacy of Bethel is also the rich legacy of Berks County.


Richard G. Johnson recently received an M.A. in black history from Morgan State University, where his master’s thesis was entitled “A Social History of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Reading, Pennsylvania: 1834 to 1859.” From 1967 to 1972, he taught world cultures at Haverford Township High School and currently teaches problems of democracy in the Boyertown Area School System.