Pilgrim Baptist Church

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Winning Nomination

Pilgrim Baptist Church is the oldest black church in Minnesota. It was formed by slaves who came up the Mississippi River to Fort Snelling. They formed this church with the First Baptist in St. Paul. The church is still there on Grotto and West Central, and relatives of some of the original members are still there. The church still has an active congregation.

It’s been my church for 71 years. I taught Sunday school and worked on the usher board for 50 years. It’s been a harbor in a storm for the African-American community. The NAACP group started there and the Urban League and the Railroad Porters Union. Other Baptist churches have stemmed or branched off from Pilgrim Baptist Church. It’s been a spot for community activism. Our minister was the one who helped to get the freeway I-94 built under instead of over us. The church also helped save the Maxfield School on Victoria and St. Anthony in the 1950s.
~Marjorie Tendle, Minneapolis, MN


Contents

History

Minnesota's oldest African American church

The year was 1863. President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order declaring the freedom of all slaves in states in rebellion, and yet the Civil War raged on. It was in this climate of unrest and danger that a small group of African American men, women, and children made their way from Boone County, Missouri, to St. Paul, Minnesota, in search of employment and better lives. Not certain of their final destination, the travelers people called themselves "pilgrims."

Among the group was Robert T. Hickman, a former slave whose master had taught him to read and had given him permission to preach to other slaves. On his arrival in St. Paul, Hickman began organizing prayer services in the homes of his fellow travelers. Over the next several years, the group continued to meet in rented space throughout the city.

Finally, on November 15, 1866, Robert Hickman and others held a baptismal service on the banks of the Mississippi River near downtown St. Paul, marking the formal organization of Pilgrim Baptist Church. As Minnesota's first African American church, Pilgrim Baptist soon built a gathering place, with seating for 300, on Sibley Street.

The congregation moved to its current building, at 732 Central Avenue West, in 1928. It has served over the years as a place of worship and a community center for St. Paul's African American community--"a harbor in a storm," as nominator and longtime Pilgrim Baptist member Marjorie Tendle puts it. "We are who we are because of our history," wrote Pilgrim Baptist's pastor, Dr. Earl Fredrick Miller Sr., in marking the congregation's 125th anniversary in 1988. "The challenge has been passed to us. The task of faith is always to see and move forward."

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