House of the holy

The little church on Linden Street and its congregation have played a pivotal role in local black history

The Bethel AME Chuch, pictured here circa 1905, was built in 1867 and has been moved twice.

The Bethel AME Chuch, pictured here circa 1905, was built in 1867 and has been moved twice.

Photo courtesy of CSU, Chico, Meriam Library Special Collections

Head to the chapel:
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (821 Linden St.) holds services every Sunday at 11 a.m. The church will hold a special black history program on Friday, Feb. 26, at 4 p.m.

On the evening of June 17, 2015, 21-year-old Dylann Roof walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., one of the oldest traditionally black churches in the United States, and perpetrated one of the most egregious acts of racially driven violence in modern American history.

After sitting in on a Bible study session for about an hour, occasionally arguing about the group’s interpretation of scripture, Roof waited for the other 12 people in attendance to bow their heads in prayer before producing a .45-caliber Glock pistol and announcing his intent to kill everyone in the room.

Over the next six minutes, Roof summarily executed nine men and women between the ages of 26 and 87, reloading his weapon five times and shouting racial slurs as he carried out the slaughter. The victims included the church’s senior pastor, Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator. After turning the gun on himself to find he was out of ammo, Roof ran off. When he was arrested the next day, he initially confessed to the crime, though he has since pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial on numerous state and federal charges including nine counts of murder, three counts of attempted murder and hate crimes. The investigation uncovered a website and manifesto in which Roof outlined his ideology and his hopes the attack would start a race war.

The shots fired in Charleston that day resounded throughout the country, a grim reminder of America’s persistent racism and shameful history. Locally, the attack was particularly felt at Chico’s African Methodist Episcopal church, Bethel AME Church, on Linden Street, the area’s oldest standing house of worship and home of its longest-running predominantly black congregation.

During a recent interview with three members of Bethel AME Church’s ministerial staff—the Rev. Loretta Dickerson-Smith, Minister Charles Larry Coleman and Brother Pedro Douglas—they said they felt disbelief, shock, grief and concern about the safety of their own flock before resolving to face the hateful act with grace.

“Out of every tragedy, you hope some kind of lesson is learned,” Douglas said. “We realized we can’t live our lives in fear, and that we have to move on and continue to do what we’re here to do. I’m sure people from Emanuel felt the same … they’ll never forget what happened, but you can’t stop doing the job that is put before you.”

The lesson the local church’s leaders took away was that hate and fear cannot win. Rather than close ranks, heighten security and grieve alone, Bethel AME and its sister churches across the nation opened their doors and invited the larger community to join them in honoring the victims, now known as the Emanuel Nine. In just a few days, the local congregation pulled together a special program on Saturday, June 20. Nine candles were lit on the altar and well over 100 community members of all colors and creeds flooded the small historic building, some even standing outside and sitting on floors, to sing and clap along with the Bethel congregation, hear words of inspiration and hope, and pray for a better future.

Left to right: The Rev. Loretta Dickerson-Smith and Ministers Larry Williams, Robert Morton and Charles Larry Coleman lead the congregation in prayer at a recent Sunday service.

Photo by John Domogma

“That day, we came united as a community of faith to say, ‘No, this is not the way things should be,’” Dickerson-Smith said. Douglas added, “You could see the words of Dr. King come to life: ‘We’re all in this together.’ As I see it, the support from the community was the silver lining in all the darkness.”

The church on Linden Street has long been a place of solace for local African-Americans, in good times and bad. A sign hanging inside the chapel proudly proclaims “108 years of service,” though the church building itself and the AME’s presence in Chico individually predate that number. The building was constructed in 1867 on Main Street, according to the city of Chico Historic Resources Inventory. It has been moved twice and is registered with the state of California as a historical point of interest.

The larger AME Church organization has likewise been pivotal in American history. It was officially founded by the Rev. Richard Allen in 1816, though its roots go deeper, to 1787, when Allen and others formed the Free African Society to counter racial discrimination and slavery in the newly independent United States. It has grown into the largest protestant organization founded by black people in the world, with an estimated 2.5 million members.

Locally, the most complete account of early black history is the book Blacks in Chico, 1860-1935: Climbing the Slippery Slope, by local historian and retired Chico State professor Michele Shover, published in 1991. Shover offered further insight into the lives of Chico’s early black population during a recent interview.

She noted blacks have been in Chico since before the city’s official founding in 1860, though they constituted only a small percentage of the area’s overall population. Chico’s early black residents included both free-born migrants from the North and those who arrived with Southern families they’d served as slaves. Chico’s founding date is of great relevance to the experience of the city’s early black population considering its proximity to the American Civil War fought between 1861 and 1865.

“The local population here was very split over the war,” Shover explained. “Everyone here then came from either the North or the South, and they all came with very ardent views, so they were much at loggerheads here.

“When the war ended, there was kind of a general feeling of relief with people feeling they could go back to regular life, but a lot harbored strong feelings that persisted until that generation died off a few decades later.”

Two black residents intimately connected to the Civil War were William Lee and S.W. Swepson, who went by the name of “Cato” or “Cater.” Lee was born into servitude to the family of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in his native Virginia, and though freed from slavery by that family as a boy, he stayed in its employ until moving to Chico. He even traveled with Gen. Lee as a servant for part of the war and maintained correspondence with the family after coming to California.

Minister Larry Williams prays with parishioners. Some families have attended Bethel AME Church for generations.

Photo by John Domogma

Swepson was born free in the state of New York. The war broke out when Swepson was 12 years old, and he joined a regiment to participate in the capacity he was allowed, as a camp servant. In 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln approved the formation of black combat units, he enlisted at the age of 15 in New York’s 43rd Colored Regiment of the Fourth Division, Ninth Army Corps, under the command of Gen. Edward Ferrero. The 6-foot-6-inch Swepson continued to fight until the end of the war despite suffering head and chest wounds at the Battle of Petersburg. Half of the soldiers in his 350-man company were killed in that same battle.

Though lack of employment opportunities was one of the biggest challenges faced by Chico’s black settlers—they were usually relegated to menial jobs such as refuse collection, housekeeping or itinerant labor—Swepson was well-respected for his skill with horses and worked as a teamster until his death at age 51.

Two other men who arrived in the 1860s—Peter Jackson and Peter Powers—would leave an indelible mark on the area’s black community and overall history. Jackson, a Brooklyn native, arrived in San Francisco in 1858 and settled in Chico in 1864. He opened a barber shop that was one of Chico’s most successful small businesses for four decades. Shover writes that he was popular and well-respected by Chicoans of all races and served as a leader of the black community.

Powers was Jackson’s closest friend and a fellow community leader. As Shover writes in her book, “Every source, even in the most casual asides, speaks of him with respect.” She also notes, “No black, white or Chinese worked harder than Peter Powers.” Powers worked a variety of trades in early Chico, including selling vegetables, whitewashing buildings with limestone, and public positions appointed by the town trustees, such as city scavenger and city bill poster. As scavenger, he cleaned downtown gutters and as bill poster Powers was responsible for posting and removing public notices and advertisements.

Powers and Jackson also played an integral role in the foundation of a local black AME congregation in the 1860s. That foundation was also assisted by the 1868 arrival of an engaged young black couple, Claybourne Jones and Susan Attonoy, both servants of Annie Bidwell sent ahead of her arrival after her marriage to John Bidwell, Chico’s founder. Shortly after the couple arrived and married, Jones took a place on the local AME group’s board of trustees alongside Powers and Jackson, and the close Bidwell connection would prove a boon to the church group.

The Civil War’s influence on early Chico extended to its religious community, and the church building that today stands on Linden Street is a physical representation of that legacy. Divergent views on the war led to a schism among Chico’s white Methodist population, with Union loyalists forming the First Methodist Church and Southern sympathizers starting the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

“Unfortunately, blacks were not welcome in either congregation,” Shover said.

The Linden Street church was, ironically, built to house the Southern faction. Chico’s black parishioners originally worshiped on a piece of land 4 miles north of town, but in the late 1860s, John Bidwell sold the AME trustees the lot on the northwest corner of Flume and Sixth streets for just 50 cents. Based on a conversation Shover had with one of Powers’ granddaughters, she posits in her book that Annie Bidwell persuaded him to sell the land for a song based on her connection to the Joneses.

Minister Charles Larry Coleman has been a member of the congregation since 1980.

Photo by John Domogma

An AME Church building—now long gone—was dedicated on that site on June 25, 1870. It served as the center of Chico’s black community until the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, donated its building to “the colored citizens of Chico” in 1907. That building was moved to the Flume and Sixth lot and became known as St. Andrew’s African Episcopal Church. It was again renamed Bethel AME Church when it was moved to its present location on Linden Street in 1957.

In her book and in conversation, Shover details how difficult life was for local blacks in the 1800s, though she believes their struggle here was not as hard as it may have been in other parts of the country. She also notes the local Native Americans and Chinese suffered more outright acts of racism, including massacres and lynchings.

Most black residents lived in the area surrounding the church on Flume Street, adjacent to the Chinese neighborhood. Shover’s research shows a kinship between the two minority communities: “On one side of the street was the Chinese, blacks on the other side, and they actually got along really well,” she said. “The blacks saw how the Chinese were treated and knew something about putting up with that. When the whites would come and catch Chinatown on fire, the blacks would help put it out.”

Shover said she believes part of the reason the black community was largely left alone in those days was because of its small size. Much of the ire was focused toward the Chinese because the cheap, abundant labor they provided threatened whites’ jobs. The great majority of Chicoans of all races were extremely poor during the last half of the 1800s, made poorer by nationwide recessions in the 1870s and 1890s, and economic concerns greatly aggravated racial tensions.

This is not to say that black community members weren’t targets of racism. In the 1880s, white men began showing up at AME Church services to taunt the congregation. Local newspapers, particularly the Butte Record, under the stewardship of editor George Crossette, regularly published diatribes condemning interracial unions and the use of black labor. He also published pseudo-scientific drivel supporting his white supremacist notions. Other news articles made black locals the butt of jokes—such as regular mean-spirited coverage of the antics of one Albert Seals, a transvestite who sometimes took on the persona of “Chico Sal.” In 1898, a prominent local family (Shover doesn’t write which) threw a party for “seventy-five of Chico’s best known residents.” The host greeted his guests in black face and treated them to a minstrel show.

Through this degradation, the AME Church offered some respite. It was the center of the black community for all events, religious and otherwise, and also served as a schoolhouse until black and white students were integrated in 1873, which occurred more as a result of the poor economy than a desire for racial equality. When California—largely sympathetic to the defeated South at the time—passed laws requiring voter literacy in response to the Fifteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1870 and gave Americans the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” the church hired an instructor to teach black adults to read and protect their suffrage.

Shover also said that some blacks—most notably Jackson and Powers—commanded such respect that they “were able to push back a little bit.” She recounts one story in which George Faulkner, president of the Bank of Butte County on the corner of Broadway and Second streets, asked Powers to raise the flag on that corner in honor of George Perkins becoming governor. Powers defiantly demurred.

“He informed Faulkner that, although Perkins was, like himself, a Republican, he could not summon ‘strength enough in his arm to hoist the flag clear up for a man who voted against the Fifteenth Amendment,’” Shover writes.

Brother Pedro Douglas (left) serves as director of Bethel AME Church’s choir.

Photo by John Domogma

Blacks in Chico contains a fairly cursory history of the first 30 years of the 1900s, compared to its more in-depth coverage of the previous century. Shover explains most of the descendants of Chico’s early black residents eventually left the area in search of better work. In the book’s closing, she writes that “another project should undertake to explore black Chicoans’ twentieth century experience.”

A great deal of that experience continues to revolve around Chico’s AME congregation.

An important historical note about the church’s more recent history regards one of its former presiding ministers, the Rev. George J. Strong. Under his direction, the church became the center of the local civil rights movement during the 1950s and ’60s. In July 1965, as national newspaper headlines focused on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s actions and the escalating conflict in Vietnam, Strong began a hunger strike in protest of the war. He died Aug. 18 from not eating for 40 days. His widow, Luella Strong, 83, still attends church at Bethel AME.

The Saturday, Aug. 21, 1965, issue of the Chico Enterprise-Record describes Strong’s funeral as a multidenominational affair officiated by heads of local Assembly of God and Catholic churches and a captain in the Salvation Army that included admirers of all races and religions.

Today, the Bethel AME Church maintains a congregation of approximately 50 to 60, and church staff said a few dozen adherents attend most Sundays. Services are lively, filled with praying, shouting and nonstop music. Though the congregation remains mostly black, there are members of all races. Several who first attended the church for the Emanuel Nine program have become regular Sunday visitors.

There are some problems associated with weekly use of a building so old, the three church officials explained during a pre-service Sunday interview. Minister Coleman, who has been a part of the church since 1980, was involved in an effort by history buffs and faith groups—collectively known as the Friends of Bethel AME—to do some repairs in the 1990s, though some needs still linger. Shover remarked how nice it would be to restore the steeple and bell removed during the church’s last move.

The church has also been the target of vandalism and other crime in recent years. All of the windows have been broken out and replaced, and the church was burglarized several times last year. The Rev. Dickerson-Smith said the only thing stolen was food and other supplies from a pantry that held goods to be distributed to the needy.

“The sad thing is that, if they wanted it, all they had to do was ask,” she said.

Bethel AME Church’s members remain active on the social justice front, and recently participated in A Beloved Community Celebration and March in honor of King on Jan. 19. The church also served as the primary meeting place for the successful effort to have Whitman Avenue renamed as Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway in 2007. It hosts a youth group—the Young Peoples’ Department—that, among other projects, distributes food and care packages to area homeless people.

“To me, this church is the epitome of what Christ told us to do when he said, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations,’” Dickerson-Smith said. “I’m very pleased with the diversity represented here. We have people of all races and all ages.

“There have been studies that show Sunday is the most segregated day of the week, but you won’t find that here. It’s a down-home church with a message that’s applicable for everyone.”

“This church has a history and legacy of families, people who’ve been in the community for many years,” added Coleman. “We’re proud the history of this church is a formidable and identifiable factor in this community … the people as well as the building.”