Myra "Niecy" Deshields, right, places flowers with her mother Barbara DeShields on the grave of Barbara DeShields' mother's grave at Fawn AME Zion Church Cemetery in Fawn Township in 2014.
The story of historically black churches in York County begins with 17 members
In 1811, seventeen black citizens of York gathered in their homes for religious worship, forming the town’s earliest known black church.
Their first church building was a one-room structure on North Duke Street. The church also housed a day school for the education of black children.
In the years before this formation, blacks worshipped in homes or in York’s churches, and some enslaved people worshipped with their masters. In 1772, the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church baptized five white and two black adults. In 1800, artist Lewis Miller drew a scene from Christ Lutheran Church in which a black man was kneeling in worship in the rear of the church.
Fifty years after the 17 residents met, a building committee composed of Aquilla Howard, Greenbury Robinson, Isaac Golden, Richard Wilson and James Smallwood arranged for the construction of a building on East King Street, between Duke and Queen streets. This church also was used as a school, and James Smallwood served as principal and teacher for more than 25 years.
Later, the Smallwood school was established on Pershing Avenue. The Aquilla Howard school, also a school for black children, was constructed on East King Street.
The church, now known as Small Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, is located on South Queen Street. It is named for the Rev. John Bryant Small, a former pastor and bishop in his denomination.
That’s a story about the early days of historically black churches in the York area. These churches have immensely shaped York County communities spiritually and in deeds. And here’s a timeline that briefly gives a sampling of highlights in the aftermath of the laying of that South Queen Street cornerstone:
1817: Twenty-six children attended the county’s first Sunday school. The early schools taught young people to read and become acquainted with the Bible. Sunday schools provided the only educational opportunities available to some children. By 1819, 19 schools operated in the county, including one black school. Blacks initially found themselves excluded from the Sunday school movement, contrary to the organization’s constitution. The Religious Society of Friends reacted by opening a summer Sunday school for blacks in the home of Paraway Lewis. Samuel Bacon, promoter of the local Sunday school movement, also taught a night class for blacks.
1837: Amanda Berry Smith was born a slave in Maryland. She became a Christian in Shrewsbury, and as an adult, gained a national reputation as a missionary, evangelist and singer.
1862: The Peach Bottom Circuit of the A.M.E. Zion denomination operated in southeastern York County as early as 1862. The churches at that time were Fawn, Trinity, Mount Olive and Chanceford. These are some of the pastors who served in these churches: Robert James Daniel (s); George Bosley; George Mitchell, Zora Deshields; Lewis H. Jiles, Nathaniel M. Washington. Fawn and Trinity congregations remain active today. The historically black A.M.E. – African Methodist Episcopal denomination grew within the Methodist Episcopal church. The A.M.E. Zion congregations formed separately from the Methodist Episcopal Church.
1868: Singleton T. Jones, born in Wrightsville in 1825, is elevated to the position of bishop of the A.M.E. Zion Church. “Long may he live to glorify God and bless his race,” a history states.
1872: Lebanon Cemetery was established in September 1872, when Charles and Sarah Yost sold two acres of land off North George Street in North York to the Lebanon Cemetery Association. It has since expanded to five acres. The cemetery became the leading place of burial for the York-area black community.
1880: John Price, pastor of Small A.M.E. Zion Church, is nominated by his counterpart at First Methodist Episcopal Church to become part of the York Ministerial Association. He withdraws his bid after learning about opposition from the organization, made up of white pastors. His successor, John H. Hector, became a member, leading to the resignation of several association members.
1887: The Rev. William W. Grimes published a booklet telling about his 30+ years of ministry in serving in established churches and planting new congregations. His list of 18 churches tells the lives of many A.M.E. ministers, as they are reassigned by their conferences every one or two years. The Rev. Grimes was pastor of A.M.E. churches in Wrightsville and York at the time.
1890: The Rev. John B. Small, later Bishop Small, becomes pastor of the A.M.E. Zion Church on East King Street in York. Small was born in the British West Indies and filled the pulpit of many prominent churches before coming to York. His wife, Mary Jane Small, was also an ordained minister. After his pastorate in York, he was named bishop in the A.M.E. Zion Church, a position of national prominence. Despite widespread travels in Africa, England and the West Indies, he considered York home. When he died in 1905, he was buried in Lebanon Cemetery.
1914: The Rev. John H. Hector dies and is buried in Lebanon Cemetery. He was a well-known minister, lecturer and evangelist, familiarly known as the “Black Knight.” “His lectures were noted for their originality and attracted crowded houses across America, Canada and England,” a historian wrote.
1931: Crispus Attucks Community Association was formed, and it wasn’t long before this organization was using a former church, St. Luke’s Lutheran, as its center. The East Maple Street church building served as a gymnasium and other center activities until 1972, when C.A.’s current South Duke Street building went up.
1851: First Regular Baptist Church met, the first Baptist congregation that assembled in York. The church was integrated, two of the 13 charter members were black. Black members worshiped there until 1883, when they formed Shiloh Baptist Church, which is a leading congregation in York today.
1928: The Rev. Thomas E. Montouth becomes pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church, a prominent York congregation since 1894. The Rev. Montouth became an influential voice for civil rights in York for decades, joining Dr. George Bowles as leading spokesmen for the black community.
1952: Two long-time pastors filled the pulpit of Shiloh Baptist in the 20th century. The Rev. Richard Manning arrived in York in 1952 to assume the pulpit formerly occupied by William E. Jones, who had served the church for 35 years.
1957: David M. Orr becomes an assistant pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church. In addition to his deep religious faith, he was noted for his business acumen, owning a restaurant, barber shop, grocery store and a refuse collection company.
1962: The Rev. Leslie Lawson, later longtime pastor of Small Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other ministers in planning strategy for the civil rights movement. Lawson and King were acquainted since meeting at a march in Bridgeport, Conn., where Lawson was a minister and teacher. The Rev. Lawson was part of an important group of pastors in this era – a group he led with Richard Manning, pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, and Joseph Fortune, pastor at Bethel A.M.E. Church.
1969: The congregation of North Duke Street’s Faith Presbyterian Church, long a leading congregation in the black community, merged with the congregation of nearby First Presbyterian Church. The merger of the black and white congregations was noteworthy, coming at a time of racial strife in the York area.
1996: Emmanuel Church of God in Christ’s congregation left their 665 E. Princess Street building for new quarters after a snowstorm damaged their building. They met in the nearby St. Joseph Catholic Church building. That congregation had moved to Springettsbury. Earlier, Emmanuel church had begun hosting the African-American Love Feast, a prestigious award for community service.
2016: The Rev. Carl Scott, pastor of York’s Bible Tabernacle Christian Center, is elevated to bishop by Alfred Owens Jr., archbishop of Greater Mt. Calvary Holy Church. Under the Rev. Scott’s ministry, the York congregation has grown from five to more than 300 in about 40 years.
2020: The Black Ministers Association of York has long been a visible force for community good – their churches represent important places for spiritual revival, ministry and gathering. This is the organization’s purpose: “The mission of the Black Ministers’ Association of York is to be a Christian community of ministers who celebrate unity and diversity before God. We provide mutual support and encouragement to one another as we are enriched by our individual gifts and journeys. We provide hope and care expressed in specific acts of compassion and justice and opportunities for service, common witness, spiritual and intellectual growth.”
Leaders of the Black Minister’s Association of York County through history: Robert O. Bailey, Bethel AME Church; William Curtis, Shiloh Baptist Church; Thaddeus Godwin, Mt. Calvary Baptist Church; Ben Hailey, Friendship Baptist Church; Nathaniel Johnson, Shiloh Baptist and Mount Moriah Baptist churches; Bill Kerney, Covenant Family Ministries; Paul R. Lee, Friendship Baptist Church; Carl Scott, Bible Tabernacle Christian Center; Anthony Sease, New Covenant Community Church; James Smith, Maranatha Church God in Christ; and Aaron Willford, Bethlehem Baptist Church.
Sources: James McClure’s “Almost Forgotten, A Glimpse at Black History in York County, Pa.,” Friends of Lebanon Cemetery, YDR files, York County History Center files and “Journal of York County Heritage.”