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St. Mark’s AME Church, Duluth

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Color image of St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Duluth, 2001.

St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Duluth, 2001.

St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church has played a central role in Duluth’s African American community for over 125 years. While other black organizations have dissolved or moved to the Twin Cities, St. Mark’s has been a mainstay.

Rev. Alphonse Reff, who served St. Mark’s from 1973 to 1984, noted in a 1975 interview that the church’s reach extends beyond its walls. From housing fraternal groups in the 1910s to supporting the fledgling local NAACP to hosting vigils in the 2010s, St. Mark’s has remained a welcoming community space.

Duluth’s African American population at the turn of the twentieth century was small but active. Blacks established fraternal orders, political clubs, and newspapers in the port city, mirroring larger establishments in the Twin Cities. Churches were fundamental to the growth and connectivity of the community.

St. Mark’s AME Church was the first and only building in Duluth built by blacks, for blacks. Founded in 1890 by Rev. Richmond Taylor, the congregation first met at Fourth Street and Fourth Avenue West. Soon afterward, it moved to a newly constructed building at 530 North Fifth Avenue East. The structure’s basement level accommodated the congregation until 1913, when the main level was completed. The simple brick building sits in a mostly residential area. It features a two-story bell tower, Tudor Revival elements, and locally made stained glass windows.

Like many churches at the time, St. Mark’s in the early twentieth century offered the community a central space for religious, social, and political conversation and networking. The local Masonic order frequently held meetings at the church, and membership there and in local black organizations overlapped.

At the time of St. Mark’s construction, most African American men in Duluth worked as janitors, waiters, porters, or dock or boat workers. A few independent barbershops and restaurants succeeded. Other employment came to Duluth via the U.S. Steel Corporation.

St. Mark's growth in its early years paralleled the growth of the African American population in Duluth, largely driven by job opportunities at U.S. Steel. In the early 1920s, the company recruited laborers—many from Southern states—to work at their plant in Morgan Park, a planned community near the edge of Duluth. Recruits found poor wages, unfamiliar weather, and discrimination upon arrival. Though their jobs were in Morgan Park, the company town, African American employees could not live there. It was a whites-only community. Most blacks settled in Gary, which was also a company town, or the East Hillside neighborhood, near St. Mark’s.

After World War I, Duluth’s blacks faced stricter segregation and harsher discrimination. When the lynching of three traveling black workers in Duluth captured national attention in 1920, St. Mark’s was proactive in response. Rev. William M. Majors of St. Mark’s assisted in efforts to indict the lynchers. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) provided legal and financial support for the proceedings.

Before the lynching, African Americans in Duluth were not convinced a local NAACP chapter was necessary. After the incident, some outraged and fearful blacks left Duluth altogether. Those who remained formed an NAACP chapter with sixty-nine members, and St. Mark’s provided gathering space for the new organization.

NAACP founder W. E. B. Du Bois was the chapter’s first speaker. In March 1921, he came to St. Mark’s and spoke in favor of Minnesota’s pending anti-lynching law, which the state legislature passed the next month. Ethel Ray Nance, whose father helped establish the Duluth chapter and who became a civil rights leader in her own right, recalled in a 1974 interview that the church far exceeded its two-hundred-and-fifty-person capacity when Du Bois came. She estimated that 75 percent of the crowd was white.

Duluth’s black population grew to about nine hundred by 1970. In 2014, it remained just under two thousand, or 2 percent of the city’s total population. St. Mark’s continues to be central to the community and attuned to racial issues in the twenty-first century. St. Mark’s parishioners hosted a prayer vigil and bell-ringing for victims of the shooting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015.

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“Bell-ringing, Vigil for Charleston Victims to Be Held in Duluth.” Duluth News Tribune, June 22, 2015.
http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/news/3771095-bell-ringing-vigil-charleston-victims-be-held-duluth

“Duluth, Minn.” St. Paul Appeal, May 2, 1891.
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83016810/1891-05-02/ed-1/seq-1/

“Duluthians Hold Memorial for Charleston Shooting Victims.” Duluth News Tribune, June 22, 2015.
http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/news/3771632-duluthians-hold-memorial-charleston-shooting-victims

Fedo, Michael. The Lynchings in Duluth. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2000.

“March 21, 1921: W. E. B. DuBois speaks at Duluth’s St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church.” Zenith City: This Day in Duluth, March 21, 2015.
http://zenithcity.com/march-21-1921-w-e-b-dubois-speaks-duluths-st-marks-m-e-church/

Minnesota Historical Society. Duluth Lynchings.
http://www.mnhs.org/duluthlynchings/index.php

OH 43.20
Oral History Interview with Rev. Alphonse Reff, July 8, 1975
Minnesota Black History Project, Oral History Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://collections.mnhs.org/cms/display.php?irn=10445845
Description: Rev. Reff discusses church membership, the NAACP, community engagement, and stained glass windows in the church.

OH 43.13
Oral History Interview with William F. Maupins Jr., July 31, 1975
Minnesota Black History Project, Oral History Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://collections.mnhs.org/cms/display.php?irn=10445837
Description: Maupins discusses the centrality of the church to social life in Duluth and housing discrimination in Morgan Park.

OH 43.16
Oral History Interview with Ethel Ray Nance, May 25, 1974
Minnesota Black History Project, Oral History Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://collections.mnhs.org/cms/display.php?irn=10445842
Description: Nance recalls W. E. B. Du Bois’ speech at St. Mark’s, black employment trends, and her father’s role in creating the NAACP Duluth branch.

Spangler, Earl. The Negro in Minnesota. Minneapolis: T. S. Denison, 1961.

St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church, National Register of Historic Places Nomination File, State Historic Preservation Office, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
http://www.mnhs.org/preserve/nrhp/nomination/91000439.pdf

Taylor, David Vassar. African Americans in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002.

——— . “The Blacks.” In They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State’s Ethnic Groups, edited by June Drenning Holmquist, 73–91. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1981.

Related Images

Color image of St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Duluth, 2001.
Color image of St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Duluth, 2001.
Black and white photograph of Rev. William M. Majors, c.1920. Majors was pastor of St. Mark’s AME at the time of the 1920 Duluth lynchings.
Black and white photograph of Rev. William M. Majors, c.1920. Majors was pastor of St. Mark’s AME at the time of the 1920 Duluth lynchings.
Black and white photograph of Rev. Alphonse Reff standing in the pulpit at St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Duluth, July 8, 1975.
Black and white photograph of Rev. Alphonse Reff standing in the pulpit at St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Duluth, July 8, 1975.
Black and white photograph of St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church interior, Duluth. Photographed in 1975.
Black and white photograph of St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church interior, Duluth. Photographed in 1975.
Black and white photograph of St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Duluth. Photographed in 1975.
Black and white photograph of St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, Duluth. Photographed in 1975.

Turning Point

The lynching of three African American men in 1920 galvanizes St. Mark’s parish and the African American community in Duluth to establish a local NAACP chapter.

Chronology

1890

St. Mark’s AME Church is established at Fourth Street and Fourth Avenue West.

1900

The congregation moves to a building at 530 North Fifth Avenue East. It has twenty-five members.

1910

Church membership stands at sixty-eight.

1913

The main level of the church building is completed.

1914

St. Mark’s has fifty-nine members.

1915

U.S. Steel begins building the company town of Morgan Park. A few years later, it recruits African American laborers to work in the plant.

1920

A white mob lynches Isaac McGhie, Elmer Jackson, and Elias Clayton, three traveling African American workers in Duluth, after a nineteen-year-old white woman accuses them of rape. In response, Duluth forms a chapter of the NAACP that meets at St. Mark's.

1921

W. E. B. Du Bois speaks at St. Mark’s in support of Minnesota’s anti-lynching law.

1925

The upper structure of St. Mark’s AME Church is built.

1938

Clarence Mitchell of the St. Paul Urban League speaks at St. Mark’s on race relations.

c.1945

A fire destroys some of St. Mark’s Church. With help from the community, the damage is repaired.

1970

The Minnesota Black History Project begins to capture the memories and experiences of Duluth’s African American citizens, many of whom share stories about St. Mark’s.

1991

St. Marks AME Church is added to the National Register of Historic Places.

2012

Pastor Michael Gonzales begins his ministry at St. Mark’s.