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Pilgrim Baptist Church, St. Paul

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Pilgrim Baptist Church, St. Paul, 2012

Pilgrim Baptist Church, 732 West Central Avenue, St. Paul. Photo by William Wesen, March 11, 2012.

Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul was the first African American Baptist church established in Minnesota. The congregation was founded during the Civil War, in 1863, by enslaved people who had escaped from Missouri, including pastor Robert Thomas Hickman. The church’s third building (732 West Central Ave.) was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.

Robert Thomas Hickman was born into slavery around 1830 in Boone County, Missouri. While enslaved, he worked as a rail splitter, cutting up logs for building fences. After being taught to read by his enslaver, Hickman became a preacher, ministering to other enslaved individuals in the area. His wife, Minta, was born around 1837 in Missouri; she and their children were enslaved in Boone County by another owner, who lived near Robert’s enslaver.

In the spring of 1863, Robert, Minta, and their children escaped their enslavers and tried to flee north out of Missouri. Ultimately they made their way to a contraband camp in St. Louis, where they found a steamboat called the Northerner. The boat then brought them up the Mississippi River to Fort Snelling, Minnesota.*

On May 6, 1863, approximately 125 people arrived at Fort Snelling via the Northerner. Among them were some of Pilgrim’s charter members: the Hickmans, Fielding and Adeline Combs, Henry and Charlotte Moffit, John B. and Elizabeth Trotter, and Giles Crenshaw. They settled in St. Paul, called themselves Pilgrims, and initially held church services in private homes.

As the freedom seekers and their families settled into their new lives in St. Paul, Rev. Hickman sought a place of worship for his group. In November 1863, the Pilgrims succeeded in renting a space in a music hall from Good Samaritans in the Good Templars, a temperance society based at the Concert Hall Building on Third Street. The Pilgrims later petitioned the trustees of First Baptist Church of St. Paul to purchase in trust a lot worth $200.00 on Sibley Street near Morris Street, on which to build a meeting place.

First Baptist Church of St. Anthony gave a portion of their building, which was being razed, to Pilgrim’s congregation to be used in the construction of the new church. With this support, Pilgrim’s first dedicated structure was built in 1872 of stone and wood on the Sibley Street site. It cost $2400.00, measured thirty-five feet by seventy-five feet, and had a seating capacity of 300.

Between 1864 and 1866, Rev. Hickman and his followers had been part of First Baptist Church of St. Paul and worshiped under Hickman’s direction, with sponsorship from First Baptist Church. On November 15, 1866, Pilgrim Baptist was formally organized and celebrated with a baptismal service on the shores of the Mississippi River. The church was then incorporated in 1870. Rev. Hickman, meanwhile, was licensed to preach, ordained, and became the congregation’s official minister in 1878. In 1886 the church moved from the Sibley Street location to Cedar and Thirteenth Streets. After the move, Hickman retired and was succeeded by Rev. Bird J. Wickins.

Civil rights worker Nellie Francis and her husband, diplomat William T. Francis, were active members of Pilgrim Baptist throughout the 1890s and 1910s. Both were singers and performed in the church’s choir. In 1909, Nellie successfully persuaded Andrew Carnegie to donate an Estey organ to the church via his charitable foundation in New York. The congregation remained active throughout the 1910s, participating in local milestones like the founding of the St. Paul chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

The congregation grew in the 1910s, creating an urgent need for a larger building, and a new church was built in 1928 at the corner of Central and Grotto Avenues in St. Paul (732 W. Central Avenue). The move brought the congregation into the heart of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood. In the same year, Pilgrim Baptist participated in the founding of the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center. The church’s members in this period included Frank Boyd, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and S. Edward Hall. Both Boyd and Hall served as the church’s deacons.

In the 1960s, when construction of Interstate 94 displaced thousands of Rondo residents, Pilgrim Baptist members took action to keep their community together. They requested that the City of St. Paul build a pedestrian bridge over the interstate at Grotto Street North, so that members could continue to walk to church. City officials complied, creating one of the new freeway’s few pedestrian crossing points. Pilgrim Baptist’s Rev. Floyd Massey, working with the Rondo–St. Anthony Improvement Association, stopped the construction of an elevated freeway.

Pilgrim Baptist Church celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding in June 2013. The congregation held a banquet, published a commemorative book, and hosted a worship service with guest speaker Rev. George Waddles, president of the National Baptist Convention Congress of Christian Education.

*Editor’s note: On April 17, 1863, General Henry Sibley had requested that contraband refugees travel from St. Louis to Minnesota to work as teamsters (wagon drivers) at Fort Snelling due to wartime labor shortages. It’s possible that this request inspired Hickman and his congregation to choose Fort Snelling as their destination.

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Aslanian, Sasha. “Pilgrim Baptist Church, Founded By Former Slaves, Celebrates 150 Years.” MPR News, June 13, 2013.
https://www.mprnews.org/story/2013/06/13/pilgrim-baptist-church-founded-by-former-slaves-celebrates-150-years

“Contrabands—Mules.” St. Paul Daily Press, May 7, 1863.

First Baptist Church. “A Brief History of the First Baptist Church of St. Paul,” December 23, 2015.
https://blog.firstbaptiststpaul.org/2015/12/23/a-brief-history-of-the-first-baptist-church-of-st-paul

“Five Thousand Negros Wanted.” St. Paul Daily Press, May 16, 1863.

French, Rose. “Minnesota's Oldest Black Church Pilgrim Baptist Marks 150 Years of Praise.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 16, 2013.
https://www.startribune.com/minnesota-s-oldest-black-church-pilgrim-baptist-marks-150-years-of-praise/211702161

Green, William D. The Children of Lincoln: White Paternalism and the Limits of Black Opportunity in Minnesota, 1860–1876. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

⸻ . Nellie Francis: Fighting for Racial Justice and Women’s Equality in Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020.

⸻ . A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall and Rise of Racial Equality in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2007.

BC8.1 / .W956
Writers’ Project research notes, ca. 1935–1943
Minnesota Works Project Administration
Description: The folder titled “WPA Writers’ Project, Negroes in Minnesota” in Box 230 contains “Negroes in Minnesota” (two pages) by Mary D. McFarland, and “Rev. Robert Thomas Hickman; Preacher, (col’d) rail-splitter and Slave liberator,” by Alfred M. Potekin (three pages).
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00695a.xml

Osman, Stephen E. “General Sibley’s Contraband Teamsters.” Minnesota’s Heritage no. 7 (January 2013): 54–74.

Pilgrim Baptist Church, St. Paul, Minnesota. 125th Anniversary Book, 1863–1988. [St. Paul]: Pilgrim Baptist Church, 1988.

“River and Steamboat News.” St. Paul Daily Press, May 6, 1863.

Robinson, James Alexander. “Historic Pilgrim Baptist Church, Saint Paul, Minnesota, 150th Year Founder’s Day Celebration of the Church History.” Available at the Minnesota Historical Society as BX6480 .S2 P68 2012.

Sluss, Jacqueline. “Pilgrim Baptist Church.” National Register of Historic Places nomination form #91000438, 1991.
https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/NRIS/91000438

“St. Paul Churches, Pilgrim Baptist Church (Colored).” St. Paul Globe, February 4, 1883.

“What Will We Do With Them.” St. Paul Daily Press, May 6, 1863.

“When St. Paul Was An Underground Station.” St. Paul Globe, April 16, 1905.

Related Audio

MN90: Pilgrim Baptist Church | Details

Related Images

Pilgrim Baptist Church, St. Paul, 2012
Pilgrim Baptist Church, St. Paul, 2012
Rev. Robert Hickman
Rev. Robert Hickman
Pilgrim Baptist Church, ca. 1910.
Pilgrim Baptist Church, ca. 1910.
Pilgrim Baptist Church, undated
Pilgrim Baptist Church, undated
Opening Day at Pilgrim Baptist Church, 1928 (front doors)
Opening Day at Pilgrim Baptist Church, 1928 (front doors)
Opening Day at Pilgrim Baptist Church, 1928 (right of entrance)
Opening Day at Pilgrim Baptist Church, 1928 (right of entrance)
Side view of Pilgrim Baptist Church, ca. 1945
Side view of Pilgrim Baptist Church, ca. 1945
Hat worn to Pilgrim Baptist Church
Hat worn to Pilgrim Baptist Church
Pilgrim Baptist Church members with their NAACP awards
Pilgrim Baptist Church members with their NAACP awards
Rev. Dale Anderson outside Pilgrim Baptist Church
Rev. Dale Anderson outside Pilgrim Baptist Church
Pilgrim Baptist Church, 1990
Pilgrim Baptist Church, 1990

Turning Point

In 1870, after holding services in rented rooms and private homes for seven years, the members of Pilgrim Baptist Church begin to meet in a building of their own on Sibley Street in downtown St. Paul.

Chronology

1866

Pilgrim Baptist Church is formally chartered in St. Paul.

1870

Pilgrim Baptist Church builds its first sanctuary on Sibley Street, near Morris Street, in St. Paul.

1874

The church burns down; members rebuild it the following year.

1886

Pilgrim Baptist Church moves to the intersection of Cedar Street and Thirteenth Street. Rev. Hickman retires.

1900

Rev. Hickman dies in Saint Paul.

1900

Pilgrim Baptist churchwomen form a Ladies Aid Society to organize their work as a sisterhood, and to serve the needs of the Church and its community.

1909

Pilgrim receives an Estey pipe organ after church member Nellie Francis, wife of William T. Francis, lobbies Andrew Carnegie for a donation.

1914

Half of Pilgrim Baptist’s members leave the congregation to join a new one: Memorial Baptist Church, led by Rev. Dr. E. H. McDonald.

1918

Members of Pilgrim Baptist found a professional men’s organization called the Sterling Club.

1929

Pilgrim Baptist Church moves from Cedar Avenue to 732 West Central Ave. in St. Paul. Members participate in the creation of the Hallie Q. Brown Center.

1936

The Twin City Ministerial Alliance selects Pilgrim Baptist minister Rev. Dr. Lee W. Harris to serve at a meeting of the National Negro Congress in Chicago. Afterward, it chooses him to be its first president.

1957

The congregation lobbies for the construction of a new building for Maxfield Elementary School.

early 1960s

Construction of Interstate 94 begins, disrupting Pilgrim Baptist and the surrounding Rondo neighborhood.

1980s

Black professionals move to the Twin Cities to work for companies like 3M, leading to an increase in membership at Pilgrim Baptist.

1993

The congregation reaches its largest size to date, with 1,000 members.

2013

The congregation celebrates the 150th anniversary of its founding.