"Only in this one we will not be just a footnote in American history - but a complete chapter," said the Rev. Jeffrey N. Leath, pastor of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at Sixth and Lombard.
Mother Bethel, founded in 1787 by Richard Allen, is the first chartered African American church in the United States. Its lot at Sixth and Lombard Streets, which Allen purchased in 1791, is the longest-held property by blacks in the nation.
Allen, a former slave, founded the church after he was banished to the balcony by whites at nearby St. George's Church. Allen walked out of St. George's in protest of the treatment of African Americans and made his voice known at a time when the founding fathers were forming the tenets of our Constitution while holding slaves.
In an interview yesterday, Mr. Leath said the church was planning the construction of the Richard & Sarah Allen Center, a $15 million structure that will comprise an educational center and a library, as well as a museum that will tell the story of the contribution of African Americans to the nation's history, from the founding of the country to the present. The center will be constructed in a lot next to the church building.
The church has formed the Mother Bethel Foundation, which will coordinate the project and has just begun to raise funds. The foundation is seeking both private and public funding and has received two small grants thus far, one from the Pennsylvania Department of Commerce and the other from the Kavanaugh Foundation.
The Mother Bethel Foundation, which has a diverse 22-member board of directors that includes both professional leaders and six members of Bethel's congregation, is headed by Delores Brisbon, a retired health-care executive from the University of Pennsylvania.
Brisbon said that on Friday a major institution, the name of which she would not divulge, will announce a major grant for the center. She said that a groundbreaking ceremony is planned for this summer.
"Our vision for the future," Brisbon said, "is rooted in the past. Society as we know it today is a product of history formed by leaders whose vision and determination have made a difference in the world. Richard Allen was one of those leaders."
Mr. Leath said that the center has been in planning for more than five years. As for telling the story, Mr. Leath says, "We own the property and will tell our own story and not be dictated to by others."
Other entities aren't handling the question of slavery and our history quite so well. The National Park Service has met with groups and individuals, including historians and black political and community leaders, who have protested its handling of the sites around Independence Park, including the Liberty Bell Pavilion and the Robert Morris Mansion, site of the first executive mansion. But the whole process has been awkward. Still, the Park Service has proposed some changes to give the African American story full play.
Mr. Leath has offered his church as the site of a public forum the Park Service has promised to hold. As a sacred and historic place that played a major role in the development of this nation, Mother Bethel would be an appropriate site for such a hearing.
People such as Richard Allen deserve to be as well known as the Washingtons, Franklins and Jeffersons of the world.