Exhibit on Delaware’s African American churches opens

 (Paul Parmelee/for WHYY)

(Paul Parmelee/for WHYY)

The Delaware Historical Society is opening a new exhibition featuring information and artifacts from Delaware’s earliest African American churches and religious leaders.

‘The Forging Faith, Building Freedom: African American Faith Experiences in Delaware, 1800-1980,’ officially opens to the public today at the Delaware History Museum in Wilmington.

In town for the opening of the exhibit, Dr. Lewis Baldwin is a professor at Vanderbilt University.  He dedicated most of his life to studying religion, and particularly to Peter Spencer, the founding father of the first African American church. His expertise played an integral part in helping to put the exhibit together. 

“It was here in Wilmington, Delaware in 1813, that [Spencer] actually incorporated, not only organized, but incorporated the first independent African American denomination in this country,” explained Baldwin.

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Spencer, a freed slave from Maryland, started the African Union Church which was of the Methodist Christian denomination, years before other African American religious leaders began settling other churches.

“Spencer was the pioneer, the father, he was actually able to incorporate the union church of Africans three years before Richard Allen founded, organized and incorporated the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia,” said Baldwin.

During his PhD research in the late ’70s, Baldwin had the opportunity to travel to Delaware and meet old church members.

“I interviewed a lot of people, who at that time were a part of the Spencer churches, many of whom have passed on since that time,” explained Baldwin.

He completed his dissertation in 1980 and in 1983 it was made into a book. While Delaware has learned a great deal as a result of Baldwin’s work, the professor said he continues to discover new things in the First State.

“I will write more about tradition and about Peter Spencer and hopefully get a better sense of the entire tapestry of the history of black faith communities in Delaware,” he said.

Celebrating tradition

It’s been 200 years since the start of the church and the Wilmington community continues to celebrate one of Spencer’s first traditions, the August Quarterly Festival.

“Peter Spencer got the idea from the Quakers in 1813,” Baldwin explained. “The Quakers in this area were known for their annual big meetings so Spencer thought it might be good to have such a meeting in connection with his African Union Church, an annual big meeting that would bring together not only people from the African American Union church, but also people from churches in other denominations, AME church and other forms of Methodism.”

Today, the event is more of a founder’s day celebration which honors Spencer.

Along with the stories of the founding fathers, Dr. Connie Cooper, chief curator of the Delaware Historical Society added that the African American Faith Experience exhibit also shines a light on things like worship, music, ushering and cemeteries.

“We have some actual tombstones in the exhibition of a black pastor from Dover, Delaware so that’s a very exciting thing for us to have,” she said. “We have a section on some notable African American preachers from Delaware, although it is a selection. We’ve got choir robes, clergy vestments, information on how the black faith community has interacted with the world as a whole, especially in the area for pushing for equality and civil rights.”

Information on the exhibit’s hours of operation can be found at www.hsd.org.

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