The history of Indianapolis’s oldest African-American church congregation is celebrated in a new Destination Indiana journey at the History Center. Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was established in Indianapolis in 1836 by preacher William Paul Quinn and Augustus Turner. The church held worship services in different locations downtown – including in Turner’s log cabin – before they raised money toward a new Romanesque-style church at 414 W. Vermont St. Construction began in 1869 and was completed in 1894.
By this time, Bethel was at the heart of Indianapolis’s African-American community. The church hosted many civil rights groups and speakers such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois and became the founding site of the Indianapolis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1912. The church also served as a stage for concerts in Indianapolis during a time when most other venues in the city were not open to all people.
Bethel’s membership had reached more than 1,400 by 1945. The congregation was strong in its stewardship and its many Christian education programs for adults and children. In the late 1950s, under the direction of Rev. C.T.H. Watkins, the church established the Department of Christian Social Welfare which hosted a well baby clinic among other outreach programs for the community.
As the Central Canal in Indianapolis saw revitalization efforts in the late 1980s, Bethel gained recognition as a historic site and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. However, the cost of upkeep for Bethel became unsustainable for the congregation, whose membership had declined. In 2016, the congregation and its leaders decided to sell the church to SUN Development and Management Corp., which planned to develop the historic church building into a hotel. Meanwhile, the Indiana Historical Society worked with Bethel A.M.E. Church members and other community organizations to preserve the history of the downtown church.
After moving from its historic home of more than 135 years, the Bethel congregation built a new church at 6417 Zionsville Road, which was dedicated on June 3, 2018. A sermon delivered at this dedication service empowered members to carry on the church’s mission in its new community.
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This program has been made possible through a Historic Preservation Education Grant from Indiana Humanities, Indiana Landmarks and the National Endowment for the Humanities.