WASHINGTON–“The church has been a busy little building,” said Bruce DarConte, marveling at the 90-year-old structure that houses St. Paul African Union Methodist Protestant (AUMP) Church near Nationals Park.
“It survived two gentrifications of the community, it survived the highway installation, it survived the construction of Capper/Carrollsburg, its demolition and the construction of Capital Quarter,” he explained.
Today, St. Paul is still in survival mode. Surrounded by new housing and with most of its members having moved out of the neighborhood, the historic church’s congregation has dwindled to about 15 hardy souls.
But the church’s members, including community leader Bruce DarConte, his wife, Anne DarConte, and Pastor Willie Mae Footman have faith that the church will survive this crisis as well.
Founded more than 200 years ago by former Maryland slave Peter Spencer, the AUMP denomination has an aptitude for survival. The Delaware Historical Society and scholars credit the denomination to be the oldest incorporated, independent African American denomination in the country.
Today church leaders say, there are 24 AUMP churches in Maryland, the District of Columbia, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Maryland is home to 10 of those churches and there is one church in Washington–St. Paul. The denomination’s membership increased from about 1,500 in 1865 to approximately 4,000 by 1900. Church officials were unable to provide a current number of its members.
Spencer was born into slavery in Kent County, Maryland about 1779. Later freed by the death of his slave master, Spencer moved to Wilmington, Delaware in the 1790s. There, he became active in the Asbury Methodist Church, a predominantly white congregation.
In 1805 about 100 “colored members” belonged to the church, making up almost half of the congregation. That same year, Spencer and about 40 other African Methodists left the church because of racial discrimination and started their own African Christian denomination, originally named the Union Church of Africans, an all-black denomination.
The denomination became incorporated in September 1813 in Dover, Delaware and is now known as African Union Methodist Protestant according to the Delaware Historical Society.
Over the years, much of the denomination’s expansion happened in Maryland at churches like Mount Pleasant AUMP Church in Mardela Springs on the Eastern Shore.
Rev. Michael A. Davis pastors Mount Pleasant. He was raised in Potomac, Maryland and is also a special education teacher in the Howard County public school system. He came to the AUMP Church from the Pentecostal Church six to seven years ago.
When asked how his Maryland church keeps founder Spencer’s legacy alive, Davis responded, “Through reminders and worship.” They celebrate Spencer on Founder’s Day in August and acknowledge him and his accomplishments during worship services.
Spencer’s accomplishments include organizing and building 31 churches and schools. He also organized the Big Quarterly in Delaware, which is the oldest celebrated African American festival in the country, according to the Delaware Historical Society.
Spencer was “a voice of advocacy against racism, slavery, and the colonization of his people in his time,” said Dr. Lewis V. Baldwin, historian, author, and former professor at Vanderbilt University specializing in the history of black churches in the United States.
Spencer was also an advocate for sobriety and temperance and urged all his church members to live exemplary lives. He was a pioneer in resistance against discrimination and slavery.
Spencer died in Wilmington on July 25,1843. His last words were “The battle is fought. The battle is fought and the victory is won forever.” The “victory” Spencer references is a place for African Americans to worship freely.
In Spencer’s time, when slavery was part of the social climate, leaders of black churches were often concerned with social justice. They used Christianity as a tool to fight against inequality and vied for their physical and religious freedom.
“The black church has been a place for people to get together to celebrate their humanity in a safe space. Having spaces for African people to express themselves in faith, freely, was a level of resistance,” said Dr. Ida Jones, assistant curator of manuscripts at Howard University and adjunct professor in the African American studies department at the University of Maryland College Park.
St. Paul AUMP Church in Washington wants to continue this legacy. “We are here to save souls, embrace the community, help serve the community and be a part of the community,” said Footman.
Located at 401 I Street, SE, St. Paul was designed in 1924 by Romulus Cornelius (R.C.) Archer Jr., Washington’s second licensed African American architect. It is a one-and-a-half-story building with Gothic-Revival architectural elements.
The church survived two neighborhood redevelopment projects. The first, in the 1940s Capper/Carrollsburg, resulted in the construction of over 700 units of low-income public housing.
The second, Capital Quarter in 2004, resulted in those public housing units being torn down. They were replaced with 514 mixed income town homes , which changed the dynamics of the once predominantly African American, working class community that came about only two generations after enslavement.
The neighborhood reconstruction left St. Paul as the only surviving church in the Navy Yard area of Washington, and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.
“Our rooftop view has changed consistently every year for five years in a dramatic way that I have never seen. But the one constant that remains in this community, and all that’s left of its legacy is the little building,” said Bruce DarConte.
Gentrification caused the church to lose members.
“After they moved all our members out, which were older members, they have moved away and as you see this is all a brand new community. A lot of our members didn’t have transportation and a lot of them have died,” said Footman, explaining the congregation’s declining membership.
St. Paul plans to meet the needs of the new community and attract more people by inviting groups to use its facilities, according to Footman. The nonprofit Near Southeast Community Partners already holds its meetings at the church.
Meanwhile, Mount Pleasant is also looking for ways to branch out and gain members.
“As a pastor, I’m working on drawing people in,” said Davis. “Drawing new people requires us to go further out, going into Salisbury and Cambridge to evangelize.”
He has about 30 members and most of them are older. However, he is confident his church will grow.
“I’ve seen smaller African American Churches grow into bigger churches. I’ve seen a church with nine members grow to have many more. I know it is possible for Maryland churches and other AUMP churches to grow,” he said.