Preserving African-American Methodist heritage

African American Methodist Heritage Center

MADISON, N.J. — “As an African American who is a lifelong United Methodist, and fifth generation Methodist, I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors who instilled in us the Wesleyan spirit that continues to this day,” said Dr. Larry Hygh, director of Communications for the California-Nevada Conference and former board member of the African American Methodist Heritage Center (AAMHC). “African Americans have played a vital role in shaping the denomination since it reached America’s shores.”

African American Methodist Heritage Center logo

Realizing that “when an elder passes, a history perishes,” AAMHC was formed in 2001 with a goal to document the presence and contributions of African Americans in Methodism.

AAMHC is a not-for-profit organization, an offspring of Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) and related to The United Methodist Church. It is incorporated and registered in the state of New Jersey and comprises a 20-member Board of Trustees representative of all jurisdictions, and one part-time staff member.

“United Methodists of African descent have been part of John Wesley's Methodism since it arrived on American shores,” said the Rev. Fred Day, chief executive for the General Commission on Archives & History (GCAH). “Their journey from deference to dignity, through trials to moments of triumph are intricately bound in our denomination's whole story.”

Barbara Ricks Thompson, AAMHC president, said the center seeks to be more than a museum of musty old records. “AAMHC intends to cast the light of discovery on the people, the strategies and the methodologies that enabled African-American Methodists to endure and to overcome the barriers to full acceptance by the denomination” she said. “Our ministry of memory celebrates the recovery, preservation and sharing of the history of African Americans in Methodism.”

Imperative to preserve artifacts

The Rev. Cedrick Bridgeforth, chair of the BMCR Board of Directors and lead pastor of Santa Ana (Calif.) United Methodist Church, emphasized that because much of African and African-American culture in the United States has been presumed to be oral, lost or never captured, it is imperative that AAMHC and the General Commission on Archives & History (GCAH) do all that is possible to preserve artifacts that will “always point us back to our roots.”

Do all that is possible to preserve artifacts that will ‘always point us back to our roots.’

Collections of memorabilia and writings are gathered, preserved and archived within the GCAH’s state-of-the-art, climate-controlled building on the Drew University campus here. Two acquisitions of note are pictures of the Historic Black Colleges and the Bishop W. T. Handy Jr. collection.

AAMHC’s collections are augmented by many GCAH cross-over collections, including Central Jurisdiction Christian Advocates, which were published during the era of institutional segregation in the denomination.

“Our rootedness in this country and within the fertile soil of Methodism can be further proven and improved as we have collections of works identifying key people and places within our lineage,” said Bridgeforth. “The struggles for justice and equity are not new and neither is the truth of what we, as black people, have contributed to the development of the United States of America and to the formation and continuation of The United Methodist Church.”

Foster appreciation

AAMHC’s goal is that these collections will foster greater appreciation, insight and encouragement about effective discipleship, evangelism and mission.

“It is important that African Americans and non-African Americans know and appreciate the rich contributions that African Americans have made, and continue to make, to the life and legacy of Methodism,” said Ricks. “The stories of the difficulties, as well as the successes, experienced in pressing on in a not-always hospitable environment are lessons that people of faith, imperfect as we are, can learn from as we seek to invite others to join us in the journey to build and sustain God’s community here on earth.”

The whole church has been slow in celebrating and sharing the powerful witness to faithfulness embedded in stories of African Americans.

Day pointed out that for so deep and abiding a connection, racism, racial dilemmas and conflicts have been an enduring part of Methodist history. “The whole church has been slow in celebrating and sharing the powerful witness to faithfulness embedded in stories of African Americans remaining in a church that wasn't always as welcoming as the Methodist invitation to experience the liberating effects of amazing grace,” said Day. “The GCAH’s work with the AAMHC in recovering, preserving and sharing this rich history and invaluable contributions of African Americans in [The United Methodist Church] is one of the most important things we do.”

Individuals seeking to do research or learn more about this rich history are invited to visit the collections at GCAH on the Drew University campus. The AAMHC also helps equip churches in uncovering historical contributions of African-American pioneers in their own local congregations that are perhaps not widely known.

More information can be found on the AAMHC website.

Editor's note: James (Jay) Rollins is Director of Communications for the General Commission on Archives & History of The United Methodist Church.

Letter to the Editor