For as long as Charles Allen can remember, he’s spent part of his Sundays at Warren AME Church.
“We had to go to church,” Mr. Allen, an 88-year-old choir member, recalled of the childhood days when he and his family would walk or catch a street car to make a service. “We had no choice.”
It was the same for his parents. And his grandparents. And his great-grandparents, Henry and Virginia Gray, who were two of the eight members who founded the congregation in 1847.
From left: Carolyn Shoecraft Mitchell, Charles Allen, Joseph Allen, and Marilyn Shoecraft Anderson at Warren AME Church in Toledo.
Warren AME Church is credited as the first church to be established by black families in Toledo, tying Mr. Allen’s history to a broader history of race and religion in the region. When his great-grandparents and the other founding families began worshiping in their homes in the mid-1800s, a time when race relations would have precluded them from comfortably worshiping in the city’s already established white congregations, they laid a spiritual cornerstone for an institution that continues to influence its broader community more than 170 years later.
Warren AME Church is today one of numerous predominantly black churches in and around Toledo, including one, Third Baptist Church, that counts a history that’s nearly as long.
To establish their own community or communities for worship would have been a natural choice for the city’s earliest black residents, who would have been navigating the racially divisive attitudes of a pre-Civil War United States, said the Rev. Lee Williams, a local pastor and past president of the NAACP who is familiar with the history of the area.
The alternative — to join white residents in one of the city’s already established churches — “wouldn’t have been possible in the 1840s,” he said.
While Mr. Allen said his parents and grandparents did not pass down many specific stories about Henry and Virginia Gray, Lillie Henderson, 87, is able to shed some light on the founding families as the church’s historian.
Mrs. Henderson spent two years researching and interviewing fellow church members to publish a historical account in 2005.
Mrs. Henderson said that the church’s earliest families would have been among relatively few black residents of Toledo in 1847; the U.S. Census recorded 118 black Toledoans in 1850, who accounted for 3.1 percent of the total population.
Mrs. Henderson said it’s also likely that the families arrived via the Underground Railroad, as is similarly believed of one of their early and influential preachers, the Rev. Henry Young, who is credited with spearheading efforts to rent worship space and then to break ground on their first church in the 1860s.
Rev. Dr. Otis J. Gordon, Jr., pastor at Warren AME during worship.
The broader racial climate would have shifted somewhat by this groundbreaking, with at least one white church having begun to welcome black worshipers. This was the still-active First Baptist Church of Greater Toledo, which saw its black congregants break away to form their own congregation, Third Baptist Church, in 1868.
“Third Baptist Church was formed of the need of the African-American members of First Baptist Church to have their own place for worship,” said the Rev. Jared Jones, who is a part of the historical ministry at Third Baptist Church. “With everything that was going on in the nation, they probably felt it was more suitable for them to meet the needs of their own community.”
These breakaway members met in two locations, on Canton Avenue and on Woodland Avenue, before settling into their current location, 402 Pinewood Ave. Construction began in 1911.
The Third Baptist congregation celebrates its 150th anniversary this year with a banquet scheduled in November.
The physical roots of Warren AME Church — which wouldn’t take on that name until after the Rev. Charles W. Warren arrived in 1865 — lie at the corner of Summit and Adams streets, where the congregation began renting space for worship and education in 1862.
A historical marker on Summit Street, in front of HCR ManorCare, recognizes this area as not only the earliest established black church but the earliest established black institution in the region.
The congregation broke ground at what would be its longest-lasting address, 14 N. Erie St., on Aug. 1, 1864. Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth are reported to have spoken at the site the next day.
The North Erie Street era also saw the church joined by several more black churches in Toledo, reflecting a swelling black population. Census records show 13,260 black residents in 1930, constituting 4.6 percent of the population.
At least 15 predominantly black congregations were on record by 1923, according to a thesis submitted to the University of Toledo in 1977 by LeRoy T. Williams, then a candidate for a doctorate in history.
These include Friendship Baptist Church, 5301 Nebraska Ave., which split from Third Baptist in 1905.
Warren AME Church moved to its third location, 749 Norwood Ave., in 1950 and to its fourth and current location, 915 Collingwood Blvd., in 1993.
The Rev. Otis Gordon is the latest in a lengthy list of pastors whose names hang on a wall inside the church. He said a typical Sunday sees approximately 130 people arrive for a morning service.
They include Mr. Allen, who, with his wife, Elinor, remains a faithful and lifelong member of the church co-founded by his great-grandparents.
“We’re still here,” he said.
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