An audacious start and 125 years laterI won’t even attempt to suggest the most historic event to occur at St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church over its 125 years.
By: Robin Washington, Duluth News Tribune
I won’t even attempt to suggest the most historic event to occur at St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church over its 125 years.
Except maybe one: the audacity of its founding in the first place.
“A handful of African Americans in Duluth, Minnesota ... had the nerve to start a church without a population,” A.M.E. Bishop John R. Bryant said at the Clyde Iron anniversary luncheon Saturday for the small, red-brick church at the corner of Fifth Street and Fifth Avenue East.
“Here we sit, 125 years later and St. Mark is still in business,” said Bryant, who oversees the denomination’s region that includes much of the Midwest and Canada. “Has anybody seen Roebuck? Or Sears? But St. Mark is still here.”
So were a handful of dignitaries at the event, such as St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin. Mayor Don Ness was scheduled to read a proclamation, but having just run the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon (in 2:18:08; see today’s Grandma’s special section) could be excused.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar sent video greetings, lauding St. Mark and noting her recent visit to Selma, Ala., and the inextricable link between the black church and the struggle for civil rights.
That struck a chord with many, particularly Selma native Hallie Hendrieth-Smith, a onetime St. Mark first lady as the wife of former Pastor Noah Smith.
“We had a wonderful experience at St. Mark,” Hendrieth-Smith said of their 2½ years in the early 1970s, remarking on the cooperation between the area’s churches.
The couple commuted weekly from the Twin Cities area, where they still live, and would have moved here, she said, “if we hadn’t been over 25.”
Her husband is 105 and she’s 10 years younger, so I got the joke. Noah Smith also recalled having a great experience in Duluth, though he said top-of-mind before he arrived was the triple lynching in 1920.
“Those carnival workers? I remember that,” he told me, though after he got here, he said he had no second thoughts. “Oh, no. The city had calmed down.”
The St. Mark pastor at the time of the horror, the Rev. William M. Majors, played a notable role in calling for prosecution of mob members, according to several historical sources. That made an impact on his successor today, Pastor Michael Gonzales.
“I was really impressed with him,” Gonzales said, calling himself lucky to be standing on the shoulders of giants. “You see that St. Mark pastors are always willing to stand up for what’s right.”
And not just when something bad happened, he said. A year after the lynchings, church members brought black scholar and NAACP leader W.E.B. DuBois to town. Earlier, members including St. Mark founder the Rev. Timothy Tyler were instrumental in arranging visits by Booker T. Washington. Both speakers were considered superstars of their time. Think Elton John concert or better.
Washington’s January 1900 speech was at First Methodist Church; not the last collaboration between the two congregations that shared roots in Methodism (though antebellum intolerance had led African Americans to form their own branch.)
“First United Methodist Church and St. Mark have had a long relationship of cooperating on a number of things,” the Coppertop’s Pastor David Bard said during the event. “I’m here because of that cooperation and to celebrate with them and to support them.”
Is this a complete historical account? Hardly, and I didn’t promise one, remember? A good source for anyone looking to learn more is the event’s program book, which includes vintage articles from the News Tribune, Duluth Herald and Duluth Budgeteer, and an eight-page documentation for the church building’s inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.
The rest —125 years worth — is history.
Robin Washington is editor of the News Tribune. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. St. Mark A.M.E. Church may be contacted at www.stmarkameduluth.com or (218) 722-5349.