First African Presbyterian Church
We've recently helped appraise, pack, and transport original records out of the historic First African Presbyterian Church, now home to New River Presbyterian Church. Organized in 1807 by John Gloucester, First African is the mother congregation of Black Presbyterianism--the first Black Presbyterian congregation in the United States.
Gloucester was born into slavery in 1776 and was manumitted by the Presbyterian missionary Gideon Blackburn. He moved to Philadelphia in 1807 and began preaching in a house on Gaskill Street. His congregation quickly grew too large for the house and he moved it outdoors to the corner of 7th and Shippen (now Bainbridge) Streets, where the First African Presbyterian Church was built and dedicated in May of 1811. Gloucester preached his first official sermons to a congregation of 123 people. He served the church until his death in 1822. John Gardner and various supply ministers succeeded him.
In 1859, the congregation called the Rev. Jonathan C. Gibbs, who heeded the call and served as pastor until 1865. R. B. Johns succeeded Gibbs, leaving First African in 1879. That same year, the congregation met and agreed to move to a more convenient location. The building at 7th and Shippen was sold and until 1891 services were held in temporary spaces at 16th and Lombard Streets. In the early 1890s, the congregation moved to 17th and Fitzwater Streets.
From the departure of Johns until 1900, First African was served by a succession of short-term pastors. At that time a call was extended to the Rev. John W. Lee, who remained with First African until 1917. In addition to fulfilling his pastoral responsibilities, he conducted a tent ministry in South Philadelphia and began the first vacation Bible school for Black children. In 1917, Lee was appointed field secretary of the Board of Home Missions. He was succeeded by Charles S. Freeman, who left First African in 1928. During Freeman's tenure, the membership of the church grew to over 500 people.
After the Great Depression, the congregation prospered again under the leadership of Sudor Q. Mitchell, who became the first African American to serve as a member of the Board of Foreign Missions. In 1943, the congregation moved again, this time to the old Tabor Presbyterian Church building at 18th and Christian Streets. After Mitchell's departure in 1947, the congregation called Shelton Bishop Waters to the pulpit. Waters presided over the congregation's move to 42nd Street and Girard Avenue in 1957.
Waters left First African in 1969 to take an executive position at the synod level, and the congregation called Kermit Overton in 1970. Overton had been pastor and industrial chaplain of the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria, working in Port Harcourt at the beginning of the Nigerian-Biafran War. In 1972 Overton would serve as president of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus. He would serve First African until 1989.
Throughout its history, dozens of famous Philadelphians have worshipped there including Underground Railroad conductor William Still, early civil rights activist Octavius Catto, abolitionist Samuel Cornish, and Tuskegee Airman Donald Harris.
Part of the records that are stored in our archives are the minute books of the Gloucester Memorial Society--an auxiliary organization established in September 1910 by a group of First African's women congregants. The interested participants gathered in the sanctuary of the church (at that time, the congregation worshipped in the building on 17th and Fitzwater) to discuss the creation of the group with their pastor, the Rev. John W. Lee. A motto and pledge were decided upon, and the President and co-Vice Presidents of the society were appointed. The motto quoted James 1:22--"But be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only"--and the pledge was as follows:
"I hereby pledge myself to in every way possible assist the Pastor and officers of the First African Presbyterian Church, of which I am a member or friend, to advance its interest spiritually, morally, socially, and financially to the best of my ability at all times."
When the group first began meeting, there were roughly 5 to 10 members. They gathered at the home of the society's President to discuss a variety of matters, including the planning of the annual Fall Bazaar--an event that is mentioned in the minutes of the group all the way through the 1960s--the organization of a sewing circle, the social life of the church, and various events and fundraisers that were either spearheaded by the group or that they participated in. Events ranged from a Luncheon for the Delegates to the General Assembly (May 17, 1920 minutes) and the annual Oyster Supper (first mentioned in February 28, 1924 minutes) to a Fuel Rally (February 1950) and Annual Tea Party. By May 1925, the group's roster included almost 30 names.
The Gloucester Memorial Society played a large role in the caretaking of the congregation, supporting their community by sending cards to those who had fallen ill and donating their dues in order to buy ice cream for an after-service treat. They set up rallies, offered assistance to the pastor and elders, and were a foundational part of First African's social involvement since their inaugural meeting in 1910.
The people of First African were deeply engaged in global and local struggles. Responding to white flight and disinvestment, the church organized the First African Housing Development Corporation in 1968. FAHDC aimed to acquire abandoned properties in the Parkside neighborhood of Philadelphia from absentee landlords. One of the group's members was future Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode, representing the Philadelphia Council for Community Advancement.
In the 1990s First African's minister Henry Pinkney served on the Parkside Historic Preservation Corporation, which renovated a series of abandoned 19th century mansions facing Centennial Park, converting them to housing for low-income residents. Significantly, the renovations were designed to deliver improved housing to people already living in the neighborhood. "When the buildings were abandoned, the people felt abandoned," wrote Pinkney, and the project, "allowed people to see hope, and from this hope has arisen a unity and a sense of empowerment throughout the neighborhood"
Finally, much of what we've been able to preserve of First African is made possible by the work of Elizabeth Nolan, longtime elder, deacon, trustee, and Gloucester Memorial Society's moderator. Like many others, Nolan was active in global and local movements. In 1989, at age 71, she was arrested in Washington D.C. during a protest against the apartheid government of South Africa.
In 2019, First African joined two West Philadelphia congregations, Calvin and Good Shepherd, to form New River Presbyterian Church, still housed at 42nd Street and Girard Avenue.
Over the past decade we've digitized different batches of First African's records. Stay tuned as we digitize more of them in the coming months!
RG 314. First African Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia, Pa.) records, 1809-1989.