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First African Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia, Pa.) records

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Held at: John Gloucester Memorial and Historical Society [Contact Us]4159 W Girard Ave., Philadelphia, PA, 19104

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the John Gloucester Memorial and Historical Society. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

"First African Presbyterian Church, founded in 1807, was the first black Presbyterian congregation in the United States. In 1809, First African became a chartered organization. Many of its pastors have been central figures in the history of black Presbyterians.

"John Gloucester, a slave and noted preacher born in Tennessee in 1776, arrived in Philadelphia in 1807. His appearance coincided with the search by the Evangelical Society of Philadelphia for a black pastor to lead the black Presbyterian congregation for which it was trying to collect sufficient funds to build a church. While waiting for his freedom and for the funds to materialize, Gloucester began to gather a congregation and to preach 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, including Cato Freeman, James Prosser, Jacob Craig, and Quommany Clarkson. Gloucester 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. He remained pastor until 1865. R. B. Johns succeeded Gibbs, leaving First African in 1879.

"In 1879, 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 its new house of worship at 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, he 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 difficult years of the 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 B. Waters to the pulpit. Waters presided over the congregation's move to 42nd Street and Girard Avenue in 1957; despite extensive renovations, the old Tabor Church building had been declared unsafe.

"Waters left First African in 1969 to take an executive position at the synod level. Kermit E. Overton, who had served in Africa as a fraternal worker, succeeded him. He became the leader of Black Presbyterians United and was a founder of the journals Periscope and Periscope 2. During the 1970s and 1980s, he served as Philadelphia Presbytery moderator and held important posts within the synod and the General Assembly."

First African Presbyterian Church is still an active congregation as of 2014.

Bibliography:

Quoted text from: Presbyterian Historical Society. "First African Presbyterian Church (Philadelphia, Pa.) records, 1809-1989." Accessed on March 13, 2014. http://www.history.pcusa.org/collections/findingaids/fa.cfm?record_id=314.

The bulk of this collection is records of the First African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There are also some secondary materials collected about the church, its members, and various other organizations and topics that were collected by church members. A majority of the records date from the 1950s to the 2010s. Although there is a small number of 19th century materials, including deeds and several important ledgers from the 1840s, in the collection, most of the original 19th and early 20th century church records are held at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The church records include: correspondence; administrative and financial material such as treasurer's reports, budgets, grant proposals, and scholarship fund papers; deeds, leases, and other property records; church publications such as bulletins, newsletters, and church services programs; and booklets, planning materials, pamphlets, and ephemera from various events, especially from the anniversaries of First African Presbyterian or other of the Church's event and celebrations, but also some from events and groups elsewhere.

The collection includes a substantial quantity of minutes. In addition to minutes of congregation sessions, there are minutes from church committees and subgroups including the Trustees, Ladies Auxiliary, John Gloucester Society, Christian Education Committee, Ushers Board, anniversary committees, and Deacon Board.

There are also many church membership materials, including church rolls and obituaries. The obituaries, for which there is a name index available on-site, are especially of, but not limited to, funerals that took place at First African Presbyterian.

Of interest in the collection are photographs by John W. Mosley (1907-1969), a self-taught photographer known for capturing images from Philadelphia's African American community. He worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer but also served as official photographer of First African Presbyterian Church. In addition to the Mosely photographs, this collection includes photograph albums of the church's Drama Guild, color slides, original photos of Reverend Shelton Waters (pastor at First African Presbyterian Church from 1947-1969), and various other photographs of church members and activities.

The highlight of the collection are three ledgers from the 1840s (transferred in 2014 on long-term deposit to the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University). One ledger, with a membership listing and pew rentals, includes two pages of payments by abolitionist William Still (1821-1902). Another volume is trustee records, mostly recorded by secretary Jacob C. White, Jr. Third is an internment listing for the church's burial ground at 7th and Shippen Streets.

John Gloucester Memorial and Historical Society collects materials relating to the history of the First African Presbyterian Church.

Summary descriptive information on this collection was compiled in 2012-2014 as part of a project conducted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to make better known and more accessible the largely hidden collections of small, primarily volunteer run repositories in the Philadelphia area. The Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR) was funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

This is a preliminary finding aid. No physical processing, rehousing, reorganizing, or folder listing was accomplished during the HCI-PSAR project.

In some cases, more detailed inventories or finding aids may be available on-site at the repository where this collection is held; please contact John Gloucester Memorial and Historical Society directly for more information.

Publisher
John Gloucester Memorial and Historical Society
Sponsor
This preliminary finding aid was created as part of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories. The HCI-PSAR project was made possible by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Access Restrictions

Contact John Gloucester Memorial and Historical Society for information about accessing this collection. Note that the 1840s ledgers are on long-term deposit at the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University.

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