New book shares history of Missouri’s African American United Methodist churches
This may be the information age, but it is also a time where history can disappear before our eyes, and be lost forever. Dr. Arnold Parks and Dr. John Wright recognize this, and it is why they embarked on the endeavor to compile and record information about Missouri’s African American United Methodist Churches. The result of their work is the new book African American United Methodist Churches in Missouri: A Pictorial History.
The two had a sense of urgency as they did their work.
“Some of the people we talked to for the book passed on before it was completed,” Wright said. “Smith Chapel in Foristell was torn down one month before we got there. We were racing to try to capture things before they disappeared.”
Wright, who lives in St. Louis, took on the east side of the state, and Parks, who lives in Jefferson City, did the west. The two personally visited all of the churches that they wrote about, speaking to pastors or church members at each.
Initially the two were focused on the Central Missouri/Central West Conference, but later opted to broaden the focus to African American United Methodist Churches (and their predecessor denominations) in Missouri.
The first African American Methodist Churches in Missouri were started in the 1840s. After emancipation they greatly expanded. There has been 186 total in Missouri through the ages. The current number is 35.
The book includes chapters on Union Memorial United Methodist Church and the early growth of Methodism in the St. Louis area, current African American United Methodist Churches in Missouri, and churches that are “gone but not forgotten.” Photos are included of each church when available, as well as stories shared during the interviews.
The book also goes beyond churches, and has a chapter on higher education institutions for African Americans supported by the Methodist Church. It provides the history of the Wesley Foundation at Lincoln University, and of George R. Smith Methodist College.
The George R. Smith Methodist College for Negroes opened in Sedalia in 1894. Its first class had 57 students enrolled.
“Many of our black pastors (at the time) attended there, as did Scott Joplin,” Parks said.
The school prided itself in preparing its graduates for the workforce, regardless of economic conditions. It did so in a much more thorough way than colleges do today. A college president is quoted as saying, “If our theological graduates cannot get a charge, they know how to build houses. If a doctor cannot get clients, they can gutter or roof a house. If the teacher cannot get a school, they will know how to set type or do farm work or shave a customer.”
The college functioned until its main building was completely destroyed by fire in 1925. The building included the residence hall for the 50 (out of 120) students who lived there.
African American United Methodist Churches in Missouri: A Pictorial History is available for $18 for a hardcover or $12 for a paperback. They can be purchased from the authors directly. Parks may be reached at (573) 635-0725 or e-mail agparks@embarqmail. com. Wright is at (314) 726-5612, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.