The Rev. Dale Snyder sits in a pew at Bethel AME Church, considered Pittsburgh’s oldest Black congregation, April 11.
(AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)
More than 60 years ago, a historic Black church was forced to give up its sanctuary – and compensated for what it says was a fraction of its value – to an urban renewal project that wiped out the heart of an African American neighborhood known as the Hill District.
Now, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church is poised to recoup some of that loss and reclaim a spot near its former home. It has reached an agreement with the Pittsburgh Penguins – the NHL franchise that now holds development rights to the site near its current arena – for the church to use a 1.5-acre parcel that it envisions using for housing and other revenue-generating development.
The agreement came after years of public calls and demonstrations by the church, which has described its efforts as seeking reparations. That battle is a microcosm of a larger one over the legacy of the 1950s project, in which leaders in the Black community have long sought redress from the powers that be in Pittsburgh’s political, business and sports realms.
Pittsburgh’s Bethel AME Church
The Penguins came into existence in 1967, playing in the original arena and then a newer one nearby after the old one was demolished. Under agreements with public authorities, the franchise has development rights to 28 acres of the former arena site. A 26-story mixed-use building is on the rise, and a small urban park has opened, with other projects on the drawing board.
Kevin Acklin, president of business operations for the Penguins, said the team is “recognizing our role here as a steward” of the property and its legacy.
“Mistakes that were made 70 years ago, we can’t fix them, but we can do what we can today for a better future, for restorative justice,” Acklin said in an interview.
He hopes the agreement, and the larger efforts to remake the site, can serve as a model for other U.S. cities suffering the wounds of similar mid-20th-century urban renewal projects.
An interior shot of Pittsburgh’s Bethel AME Church.
“We have the ability to do good and work with a group of people and a church that’s trying to do good,” Acklin said, adding a biblical aphorism: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
The announcement was made at an outdoor setting on the former arena site Friday preceded by a worship service, underscoring the role of faith as a motivating and organizing source for Bethel’s efforts.
The aptly named Hill District, which rises steeply to the east of the city’s central business district, became in the 20th century a hub for Black culture, renowned for its jazz clubs and other cultural touchstones portrayed in many of the plays of acclaimed dramatist August Wilson.
Bethel AME had a prominent role in that community. Founded around 1808 and considered Pittsburgh’s oldest Black church, it was active from its earliest years in childhood education and civil rights. It opened a large brick church in 1906 in the Lower Hill District, with rounded arches and a prominent tower, home to 3,000 members at its peak.
But in the 1950s, public officials from the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh declared much of Lower Hill to be blighted. It oversaw demolition of about 1,300 buildings across 95 acres, displacing more than 8,000 people, 400 business and multiple houses of worship – although not a mostly white Catholic church, as Bethel members have noted.
Bethel leaders fought the church’s demolition unsuccessfully, ultimately receiving $240,000 for a property that had been valued at $745,000. The Rev. Dale Snyder, current pastor of Bethel, has said that in the racial and political climate of the time, the church had little power to obtain fair compensation.
A crosstown highway, civic arena and some housing were built in the former neighborhood, but other planned structures never materialized.
The result was a concrete and asphalt gash between the downtown area and the Hill District, which continues to struggle economically.
Bethel now worships further up in the Hill District. Its more modest, modern sanctuary is bathed in the light of stained-glass windows telling stories of the Bible and honoring Methodist stalwarts such as AME pioneer Richard Allen.
The Rev. Dale Snyder
Among those attending the announcement was Bishop Kurt Kusserow of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Kusserow is among the faith leaders that has supported Bethel in its efforts for reparations. The relationship grew out of a Lutheran-AME dialogue that itself was rooted in tragedy – the 2015 racist massacre of nine attendees of a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.
When ELCA leaders learned that the killer had been a member of one of its churches, they called for members of their predominately white denomination to build ties with AME churches.
“As we learned more about white privilege and all of that reality in our country,” Kusserow said, “it was our responsibility to use that privilege in any possible way to accompany what the AME church was seeking in terms of reparations.”
Acklin said the 1.5-acre site is larger than the 13,000-square-foot property that Bethel formerly owned, and which has been designated for other uses. He sees the agreement as part of larger efforts to work with the Hill District community to restore its former connections to downtown.
In 2014, all of the major parties involved – which include the city, county and two public authorities – agreed to a plan intended to include Hill District stakeholders.
But the long process has required vigilance to ensure the new developments benefit the neighborhood, said Marimba Milliones, president of the Hill Community Development Corp.
“When we’re talking about addressing a historic wrong, it has to be for the entire site,” Milliones said. “The return of this land (to Bethel) is important, and we should celebrate it, but we have to keep our eyes on the broader development as we celebrate, because the whole site is entangled in questions of morality and questions of good urban development and equity.”