The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song airs Tuesday February 16 and Wednesday, February 17 at 9:00 pm, and will be available to stream. Find out more about Chicago's Black churches at wttw.com/blackchurch.
Black churches in Chicago are celebrated for a number of cultural contributions outside the communities they serve and enrichment they offer: gospel music was first developed at Pilgrim Baptist Church and Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the music of Black churches continues to remain relevant via hip-hop; pulpits have been the platform for prominent speakers; social movements have sprung from hallowed doors; several modernist churches are noted for their architecture.
But of course these institutions are also places of gathering and spirituality, each with their own congregations and histories. Here are some of Chicago’s Black churches.
Quinn Chapel A.M.E.
Chicago’s oldest Black congregation began as a seven-person prayer group in 1844, less than a decade after the incorporation of the city. Admitted to the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1847, the group named its church after William Paul Quinn, an A.M.E. missionary and bishop who founded several churches in what was then known as the Northwest Territory and is now the Midwest.
The church served as a station on the Underground Railroad, with four female members of the congregation acting as conductors who provided food and shelter to fugitives fleeing slavery in the South. During the Civil War, Quinn Chapel grew so much that Bethel A.M.E. was founded by Bishop Quinn in Chicago to serve more congregants.
Quinn Chapel’s first church was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and a new edifice was eventually constructed in Bronzeville, in 1892, where it still stands today. Frederick Douglass spoke there, as did W.E.B. Du Bois, Susan B. Anthony, Booker T. Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and numerous politicians including Rev. Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama, continuing into the present day.
Olivet Baptist Church
Olivet Baptist is another of Chicago’s oldest Black congregations, having been founded in 1850 as Xenia Baptist Church before eventually merging with another church during the Civil War to become Olivet. As with Quinn Chapel A.M.E., and indeed many of the best-known Black churches, Olivet has been a locus of activism, on behalf of civil rights as well as against saloons and “vice.”
It was also important in the Great Migration of Southern African Americans to the North, promising jobs and housing to those who moved to Chicago. With its congregation bolstered by the Great Migration to some 10,000 people in 1920, it became the largest Black church in the United States.
Stone Temple Baptist Church
Housed in a former Romanian synagogue in North Lawndale, Stone Temple Baptist Church was bought by a Black congregation relocating from Bronzeville in 1954 and named after its pastor, Rev. James Marcellus Stone. Under Stone’s leadership, the church became involved in the civil rights movement, holding a protest rally in response to the murder of Emmett Till and frequently hosting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as supporting causes related to voting rights and school segregation.
When Dr. King and his wife Coretta Scott King came to Chicago in 1966 to bring attention to despicable housing conditions on the West Side and launch a movement for civil rights in the North, Rev. Stone found an apartment for the Kings to live in, and King continued to speak at Stone Temple, which served as the West Side “Action Center” for the movement.
Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church
This Bronzeville building was well-known even before a Black congregation moved in, hosting speakers such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Jane Addams while it was the home of the Jewish Sinai Congregation. After serving as a Catholic school for nearly two decades, it was taken over by the congregation of Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church in the early 1960s.
The church was instrumental in bringing Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to Chicago, and Dr. King himself gave a famous sermon there entitled “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool,” on August 27, 1967. On the first anniversary of Dr. King’s death, Rev. Jesse Jackson, then the national director of the SCLC, held a large service at Mt. Pisgah for over 1,000 people.
Trinity United Church of Christ
This large church in Washington Heights attracted national attention during the 2008 Presidential election because of controversial statements made in sermons by its pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright; Barack Obama was a member of the church. (The Obamas resigned their membership and Wright retired in 2008.) But Trinity United has much more to be known for, including a devotion to social justice and outreach to the poor. (Newsweek wrote in 2008 that, “For any spiritually minded, upwardly mobile African American living in Chicago in the mid-1980s, Trinity United Church of Christ was—and still is—the place to be.” Its members included Oprah Winfrey.)
Trinity United is now led by Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III, who also appears in the new Henry Louis Gates, Jr. special The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song and participated in a WTTW discussion about the Black church.
New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church
Like many Black churches in Chicago, this Garfield Park building was once the home of another denomination, in this case the Irish Catholic parish of St. Mel’s, before being purchased by New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church in 1993. It is notable in part for its Maafa Remembrance window, named for the Swahili word for “unspeakable horror,” which replaced a large rose window. The window is a memorial for the impact of slavery; other stained-glass windows depict children lost to violence during the civil rights movement and contemporary gun violence in Chicago.
The church is also home to the MAAFA Redemption Project, which attempts in part to address the root causes of such violence by engaging at-risk men from the neighborhood with employment, educational opportunities, housing, and social services.