Milwaukee’s First Black Church Endures Today

St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church was one of the city’s earliest ethnic congregations – and it’s still serving Black Milwaukeeans today.

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Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Decades before Milwaukee’s Italians, Greeks, Serbs and other European immigrants organized churches, the city’s African Americans were worshipping in a place they could call their own. In 1869, they established St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and began to hold services in a former German Protestant building on Fourth and Kilbourn – a site now occupied by the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

As the Black community slowly expanded into the area north of Downtown, St. Mark followed. In 1914, the congregation relocated to another former German church on Fourth near Galena Street, and in 1969 – its centennial year – St. Mark built its present home on Atkinson Avenue at 16th Street. The structure resembles an anvil in outline, honoring the AME denomination’s 1787 origin in a Philadelphia blacksmith shop.

This 1970 photograph shows a men’s group called the Lay Organization assembled in song. Pledged to St. Mark as “our community, our job, our school,” the group professed the dignity of all lay work. Its members dressed for the service in worker’s clothes of all types: mechanic’s coveralls, coats and ties, and the bib overalls of their Southern ancestors.

Like the church it serves, the Lay Organization is still thriving in fidelity to its original mission. Scores of congregations have risen from Milwaukee’s Black community to provide faith, fellowship and support, but St. Mark will forever be the first.


IN COLLABORATION WITH MILWAUKEE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s October issue.

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