THE CHURCH IN BRONZEVILLE
By Michael Theobald
In Bronzeville, it was said the number of policy stations was equaled only by the number of churches. In Black Metropolis, the authors say that one could find, “within a stone’s thrown of one another, a Hebrew Baptist Church, a Baptized Believers’ Holiness Church, a Universal Union Independent, a Church of Love and Faith, Spiritual, a Holy Mt. Zion Methodist Episcopal Independent, and a United Pentecostal Holiness Church. Or a cluster such as St. John’s Christian Spiritual, Park Mission African Methodist Episcopal, Philadelphia Baptist, Little Rock Baptist, and the Aryan Full Gospel Mission, Spiritualist.” In all, nearly 500 churches crowded 10 square miles of Bronzeville.
The first African-American Church in Chicago, Quinn Chapel, was established in 1847. At the time, blacks weren’t legally allowed to live in Illinois, although the law was largely ignored in the abolition-friendly city.
More important was Olivet Baptist Church, founded in 1850. By 1900, it boasted 4000 members. But that was just the beginning. In 1916, Lacey Kirk Williams took the reins at the church. The son of former slaves, Williams was a dynamo of energy who became a national leader among Baptists. At the same time, the Great Migration from the south swelled the church until it became, by 1940, the largest protestant congregation in America, with 20,000 members.
Under Williams, the church became a major social force in Bronzeville, running 40 different organizations aimed at advancing black Chicago’s economic, social, political and education interests. They became major supporters of civil rights cases working their way through the courts and at times negotiated on behalf of organized labor.
Williams was killed in a plane crash in 1940, and Joseph H. Jackson took the helm. Olivet continued its push for civil rights, but in a court-focused, non-confrontational way. When Martin Luther King began his work, Jackson, who ranked highly in the national Baptist organization, opposed his tactics, worried that they would cause more problems than they’d solve. Eventually this led to King and others breaking off from the Baptist Church to form the Progressive Baptist Convention.
Olivet’s membership shrank from its heights, but it remains open to this day in the building they’ve occupied since 1907.
Bronzeville in the 1940s also boasted the largest black Catholic congregation in America, and Chicago was the home of America’s first black priest, Augustus Tolton
Born a slave in Missouri in 1854, Tolton and his family moved to Quincy, Illinois, where an Irish priest, Father McGirr, allowed him to attend the parochial school over the objections of white parents. Hoping to become a priest himself, Tolton applied to seminaries across the United States, but was rejected because of his race. So Father McGirr sent Tolton to Rome to study at the Vatican, where he was ordained in 1886.
He expected to be sent to do missionary work in Africa and was surprised when he was instead sent to back to Illinois. First to Quincy and then to Chicago to establish a Catholic church for the growing black community there.
By the early 1940s, there were three Catholic churches serving Bronzeville, but they were still segregated in many ways. Blacks were permitted to attend mass at white parishes, but funerals and marriages had to be performed at one of the Bronzeville churches. And while official Catholic policy stated that students who wished to attend parochial schools would be enrolled at the one nearest their homes, black students were prevented from entering white schools and sent to those in Bronzeville until the practice was finally dropped.
Ironically, the best known figure in black Catholic Chicago today is a white man, Father Michael Pfleger. The pastor of St. Sabina Church for over 35 years, Pfleger is a nationally renowned advocate for his community, performing outreach to gang members, sponsoring job programs, conducting anti-violence campaigns, and being outspoken in his attacks on racism in all forms, from government to advertising. His actions have often brought him into conflict with his superiors in the church, but his popularity makes it difficult to restrain him.
Pfleger and other pastors across the South Side continue to do the work that the church has done for black parishioners for 150 years—providing structure, community, and help for those in need.