In early Springfield, a quartet of Black churches fostered faith, community
There are 4 churches on the African American Heritage Trail: Pitts Chapel UMC, Washington Avenue Baptist, Gibson Chapel and Benton Avenue AME.
Springfield once had four thriving Black churches all situated within just a short distance from one another.
One of those churches, Pitts Chapel, is still holding services every Sunday in a building constructed in 1911 on Benton Avenue just north of the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge.
These days, only a handful of people meet every Sunday morning in the church’s basement while the sanctuary ceiling is being restored. And, because of the pandemic, others watch the service online.
The church was established by enslaved people in 1847, according to its former pastor, Reverend Russell Ewell.
"The powerful thing for me is, when you think about the time that that was, it was pre-Civil War, and you think about the conditions for African Americans at that moment, for enslaved African Americans at that moment, to be able to go to your enslavers and ask for permission to start a church when that was not necessarily something that people wanted them to do to be able to have a place where you can worship," said Ewell.
Pitts Chapel and a church that until recently stood to the southeast, Gibson Chapel Presbyterian, are included in the Church Square South portion of the African-American Heritage Trail. The Washington Avenue Baptist Church building on Drury Lane and the Benton Avenue AME church building on Benton at Central are included in Church Square North.
Wes Pratt, assistant to the president and chief diversity officer at Missouri State University said churches have always been a place of sanctuary for African American communities.
"Our churches, you know, had that sense of community, a sense of support, maintaining our faith and our belief in fairness, justice, equality and equity, and so it's sustained us," he said.
Pratt was baptized in the old Washington Avenue Baptist Church building, which is now home to the Drury Diversity Center. The church was organized in 1867 as a mission by members of the white congregation of the First Baptist Church, according to the African American Heritage Trail website, and was called Second Baptist Church (Colored). It was eventually renamed Washington Avenue Baptist Church to remove two stigmas: The use of the term “colored” and the name Second Baptist, which implied an inferior offshoot of First Baptist Churches, it states.
The congregation moved to a new building on N. National 21 years ago and eventually changed its name to Turning Point Church, which is still in operation today.
Pratt remembers growing up in a time when the church was a central part of his life and the lives of many Black families in Springfield.
"My mother had us going to church every Sunday morning. Summer schools, there was Bible studies...and, you know, the church was just a part of our makeup," said Pratt, "the socialization, the esprit de corps, the faith that you had to have to persevere against folks who may have...discriminated against you, you may have been treated unfairly, the insensitivity—the church certainly has been our refuge."
The houses in the church quadrangle were mostly Black, single-family homes, Pratt said, and people looked out for one another. Pratt took part in Boy Scouts at Benton Avenue AME Church, which was once pastored by Reverend Oliver Brown, the plaintiff in Brown vs. Board of Education. His daughter, Linda, who was a plaintiff in the case, too, attended Central High School.
Benton Avenue AME was organized in 1872, and the brick building that now sits vacant and is owned by Drury, was built in 1926.
In the summer, families who attended one of the four Black churches sent their kids to communal activities in the summer.
"The African American churches would gather, and they would have Bible school in the summer, and it would be at various churches, so that was always fun getting to meet with others," said 80-year-old Ferba Lofton, a longtime Springfield educator.
Lofton is a lifelong member of Gibson Chapel, which is now meeting in a space at Hillcrest Presbyterian that the church renamed the Gibson Room.
As she talked about her church recently at a Springfield restaurant, she remembered what she called “wonderful” picnics in the summer.
"We would go out to the pump station or some lake or someplace and, you know, everyone would have their baskets full of wonderful food and just good times," said Lofton.
Gibson Chapel was formed as the First Negro Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1865 by freed slave, Reverend Peter Lair, with the help of a white minister, according to the African-American Heritage Trail website. The frame building was constructed on the south side of what’s now known as Jordan Creek at Washington Avenue, and a new brick church was built at Washington and Pine (now Tampa) in 1891.
According to what Lofton’s been told, members of Springfield’s Black community hid in fear in the basement of Gibson Chapel after the lynchings on Park Central Square in April, 1906.
Lofton said her church and other nearby churches played a pivotal role in the lives of Black families.
"I think the churches were so important during all of the unrest, all of the lynchings, and I don't think the community would have survived if they had not had the churches," said Lofton, "because they had that sense of family, you know, they were there to protect each other."
Lifelong Gibson Chapel member, 77-year-old Shelia Burton, said church was a central part of Black families’ lives, in part, because they couldn’t go anywhere.
"So the churches was the only place you could go to," said Burton. "We couldn't go, you know, to restaurants and things like that. We couldn't do that."
Burton and her sister recently attended a production at the Landers Theatre and sat downstairs, something Black people weren't allowed to do during segregation.
"We used to go to the Landers Theatre, but, like I said, we had to sit upstairs with the bats. Bats were up there...and it was horrible," she said.
Burton said their recent visit to the Landers was the first for her sister since segregation ended.
"So, it was really amazing to her to sit—we got to sit where everybody else sits," said Burton.
Gibson Chapel, damaged by fires in 1915 and 1935, various floods and a tornado, had been falling into disrepair for some time. The congregation couldn’t afford to keep the building going and it was sold to nearby SMC, which ended up tearing the structure down in 2020. The company had offered to back out of the deal of anyone offered to take it over and not demolish it, but no one did.
The church and its members had a huge impact on Burton and on Lofton who said, for her, it was a safe place.
"A place where there was family. There were always people there to care for you," she said. "I don't think I would have become an educator had it not been for one of our minister's wives who was just a wonderful person and encouraged everyone."
That person was her Sunday school teacher, Ollie Allen, who even paid for Lofton’s first year of college.
Gibson Chapel nurtured and encouraged men who were members of the choir who went on to national fame.
The Philharmonics were the first Black cast members to appear regularly on a nationally broadcast television show in the U.S., the Ozarks Jubilee, which broadcast from downtown Springfield, according to the Downtown Springfield Association.
The performed at the Grand Ole Opry, shared a tour poster with Elvis Presley, sang with famed gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson and dined with President Harry S. Truman.
You can find out more about the African American Heritage Trail and the churches that are part of it at africanamericanheritagetrailsgf.org.