The tragic events at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last June – when a racist gunman killed nine people gathered in this fabled institution -- had special resonance in Philadelphia. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in the City of Brotherly Love in May 1816 by Rev. Richard Allen and dozens of other black Methodists who believed firmly in both religious liberty and racial equality. Soon after, Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel (formally founded in 1794) welcomed a delegation of black Charlestonians, including Morris Brown (who would eventually flee South Carolina in the wake of Denmark Vesey’s slave rebellion and settle here, where he eventually became a Bishop in the AME Church).
Two centuries later, AME followers from across the country and around the world gathered in Philadelphia to celebrate Allen’s founding vision of true equality and justice for all. In February, the AME Bicentennial at Mother Bethel AME Church at Sixth and Lombard Streets paid homage not only to Allen but to generations of “Freedom’s Prophets” who struggled to overcome slavery and racial injustice. The echoes of the Charleston tragedy were loud and clear. On the exact same ground where Richard Allen took a bold stand for liberty in the 18th century, speaker after speaker called for a new civil rights movement in the 21st century to vanquish any lasting legacies of racism.
|Playbill depicting the Rev. David S.|
Cincore as Othello (1901)
Featured in PAFA's "An Extraordinary History"
The Library Company has had a long and interesting relationship with Allen, both the historical person and the revered icon. Though not a shareholder, Allen himself donated a copy of his Yellow Fever pamphlet, “A Narrative of the Black People During the Late Awful Calamity,” to us in 1794. Over time, LCP acquired many images of Allen, including two executed during his lifetime; we also recently acquired a set of books from Allen’s own library (Josephus’ writings on Christianity’s roots). And just this year, the Library Company played a key role in the production of the Richard Allen stamp issued by the United States Postal Service (which came from our copy of an 1876 engraving, “Bishops of the AME Church,” featuring Allen).
Now the Library Company will be a key player in a wonderful summer exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Entitled “An Extraordinary History, An Incredible Future: 200 Years of Service,” the exhibition runs from July 1 through July 17th. As one might expect, the show is a key part of the AME’s Bicentennial celebration. With 200 artifacts, documents, and digitized images from the Church’s illustrious history, the exhibition illuminates two centuries of accomplishment and struggle. Notably, 14 rare books, pamphlets, prints, and pieces of ephemera come from the Library Company’s African Americana Collection. Among the LCP treasures are images of AME bishops from the late 19th century, AME conference minutes from Ohio during the Civil War – including the church’s salute to Abraham Lincoln for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation – and a playbill from a turn-of-the-century production of Othello featuring AME pastor David S. Cincore. Movingly, given recent events, there is also a copy of the 1889 South Carolina AME conference report on the struggles of black Methodists in the Deep South.
It’s quite a display. Florcy Morriset, a museum consultant with Mother Bethel Church who curated the exhibit, was thrilled to visit the Library Company and learn about our holdings in AME history. “The pamphlets and prints that I saw were truly a treasure,” she wrote us after her tour of the archives. After viewing the 1823 engraving of Raphaelle Peale’s magnificent painting of Allen, she noted that the image symbolized for her “the sheer beauty, legacy and historical significance of the AME Church.” It “left me proud and blown away.”
Though varied by time and topic, the Library Company’s materials illustrate the many ways the AME Church has struggled for freedom in the past two centuries. In a founding city like Philadelphia, that is an incredible story that must be told again and again. Indeed, it is reassuring to know that this story is deeply embedded not only in Mother Emanuel and Mother Bethel churches but also Ben Franklin’s Library Company.
(Visit www.pafa.org for Admission Fees and Hours)
Location: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 128 N. Broad St., Phila., PA
Dr. Richard Newman
Director, Library Company of Philadelphia