From ‘Citadel of Hope’ to parking lot: Pittsburgh’s oldest black church calls for repairs

From ‘Citadel of Hope’ to parking lot: Pittsburgh’s oldest black church calls for repairs

By Kaitlyn Kennedy

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – In the early 1950s, Bethel AME was the thriving center of Pittsburgh’s black community. Today, the former church site serves as a parking lot for the Penguins NHL Stadium. TAG24 NEWS spoke with Rev. Dr. Dale Snyder of Bethel AME about the history of the congregation and their ongoing struggle to restorative justice.

Bethel AME, located in downtown Pittsburgh, was at one time the center of the city’s largest black community. © Reverend Dr. Dale Snyder

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) — a former Underground Railroad stop — was founded in downtown Pittsburgh in 1808.

After nearly 55 years of work, the sanctuary known as “Big Bethel” was completed in 1908. The building could accommodate 1,900 people.

“In the 1900s, segregation still existed, and the areas where you could buy land and property were limited for African Americans,” current Bethel AME pastor Reverend Dr. Snyder told TAG24.

“When people came from the South, they came from the West, or wherever, when they see this citadel of hope that African Americans have built, they have hope that they can build their future, their families.”

Once the largest black community in Pittsburgh, Bethel AME served more than a spiritual gathering point. It was also a center of education, providing schooling for black Americans at a time when public schools would not. They created a nurses’ association to care for black people when hospitals barred them from receiving medical care.

A symbol of independence and self-sufficiency, Bethel AME has hosted fraternities and sororities, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and Little League teams. They fed the hungry, owned apartment buildings and houses so that those in need had a home and served as an organizing center during the civil rights movement.

“We were the end of all and we were all for all the needs of the community,” Snyder said.

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Community members gather at Bethel AME for a meeting on police brutality in April 1954. © Rev. Dr. Dale Snyder

Bethel AME Facing Destruction

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Demolition of Bethel AME Church began in 1957. © Rev. Dr. Dale Snyder

But that progress came to an abrupt halt in 1957, when church property was seized by eminent domain — which allows the government to take control of private property in some cases — and destroyed.

The field later became part of the Civic Arena site, former home of the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL team.

“Our church has been targeted to build what I call a white man’s playground,” Snyder said.

Although the city charter states that private property cannot be seized from churches and cemeteries, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Pittsburgh, which is not strictly a city entity, was able to To do.

The church was the last building to be demolished, and for a time it stood like an island in a sea of ​​23 acres of newly cleared land.

A nearby white church of the same size, the Epiphany Church, was not destroyed and still exists today.

“Our congregants of that period, every Sunday, they would walk and they would look at their building, praying to their God that their church would survive. They would look at Epiphany, which was just 428 feet away and not demolished,” Snyder explained. “Why couldn’t our God save our building like their God saved their building?”

“It’s the pain of racism and segregation and hate and bitterness of black skin. It was our citadel of hope for people, for education, where we buried our dead, we married our families, we baptized our children and we encouraged them to have hope for the future.”

The congregation only received $240,000 in compensation, which was not enough to build a sanctuary of the same size. Their current headquarters numbers only 900 people, and the church has lost two-thirds of its membership as a result. They didn’t have enough money to build an educational wing to bolster their training and schooling programs.

“They could only take our church using eminent domain government vehicles, and it has the same effect as the Ku Klux Klan coming in and burning our church,” Snyder insisted.

Calculation of damage caused

Today, the sanctuary of Bethel AME Church can only accommodate 900 people.

Today, the sanctuary of Bethel AME Church can only accommodate 900 people. © Screenshot/Facebook/Dale Bruce Snyder

Today, the former Bethel AME site is used as a parking lot for the Penguins’ PPG Paints Arena, built in 2010.

But new development plans are in the works for the Lower Hill neighborhood, including creating walking paths on the former Bethel AME site.

The current congregation was not consulted in the development of these plans, having lost the rights to their own land.

Instead, sports & Exhibition Authority (EES) owns the land, the Penguins have development rights, and the URA has a “me too” deal. All three must come to a consensus before any land is developed or sold.

But even though the SEA and URA are publicly run, “they all make decisions in the best interests of the Penguins,” according to Snyder. “They treat public money as if it were private money.”

One day, one of the community devs contacted Snyder, claiming that the Bethel community “deserves repairs”. When he asked her what she had in mind, she replied that the developers wanted to put a plaque where Bethel AME once stood.

“I asked him at that time, ‘Can you do me a favor?’ I said, “Could you please stop speaking on behalf of Bethel? Let’s do our research, and after doing our research, do what we can to speak for ourselves. “” Snyder replied.

He and other members of the Bethel congregation began meeting weekly to do this work and organize.

They began by calculating how much money they could have generated from the weekly tithes of their then 3,000-member congregation had they not lost so many people to downsizing. Snyder said that amount was “between $500,000 and $1 billion”, not to mention the fundraising events they could have organized.

They also watched sister AME churches in other cities like Detroit, New York, and Chicago that were not destroyed and saw those congregations grow to 25,000–30,000 members. Additionally, they had developed the area around their churches and owned gas stations, credit unions, nursing homes, and schools. “They generate between $1.6 million and $2.4 million every Sunday, and they put that back into the community,” Snyder said.

“They were able to really do what was needed in the community to help people out of poverty, but we were denied.”

Today’s fight for reparation

The Pittsburghers attend a service honoring the ancestral land of Bethel AME in the parking lot across from PPG Paints Arena on June 16, 2021.

Pittsburgh residents attend a service honoring the ancestral land of Bethel AME in the parking lot across from the PPG Paints Arena on June 16, 2021. © Collage: Screenshots/Facebook/Dale Bruce Snyder

Now the leaders of Bethel AME are fighting for the development rights of their historic land.

They met with the mayor and local officials, saying the Penguins and First National Bank received guaranteed land in the new development plans – meaning Bethel AME should receive the same.

In early 2021, Snyder was surprised when the Penguins approached him saying they “believe in repairs” for Bethel AME. They have offered to develop the land around the current church site, but the congregation still wants its original property back.

To that end, they have requested a meeting with the URA, SEA and Penguins, but progress is slow. “Getting our property back was a tough conversation because they came in with all this smoke and mirrors. Everyone is kicking the streets,” Snyder said.

For Bethel AME members, regaining rights to their land means more than recovering financial losses. It’s about addressing pain and trauma in their community – open wounds that continue to inflict damage.

One day, the Penguins invited Snyder and several church officers to a hockey game. They placed cones in the parking lot to indicate where Bethel AME once stood.

“When I looked through and saw this land, my heart sank. I wanted to cry because I felt the pain of our people. They chose this choice land in the center- city ​​with a vision for the future, and I’m telling you, it was moving because I could hear their tears. I could hear their voices,” Snyder recalled.

“It was probably one of the most painful experiences of my life, just imagining being alive during that time and seeing a wrecking ball hit that building that took you over 50 years to build. Can you imagine the pain , the suffering and dehumanization of our people?”

Snyder found that there is a lack of knowledge in the wider Pittsburgh community about the realities of systemic racism. This is why community education has become a central part of Bethel AME’s advocacy. He and his team are working with two white churches to hold roundtables in February around a book called Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair by Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson.

“We want to tell our story and say, ‘Hey, this is our past. We don’t have to be hostage to our past. Our past can be a liberating opportunity for our future. We seek reparations for our people. .'” Snyder explained.

“We have enough money to do what we want to do, but do we have enough integrity and justice to give black people our 40 acres and a mule?”

Cover photo: Reverend Dr. Dale Snyder

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