Missoula man seeks recognition for city’s 1st black church

“On Black History Month, I ask the city to find a way to recognize the history of St. Paul A.M.E.,” Phillips Street resident Greg Martin said. “To remember that the first generation of emancipated black Americans came to Missoula and started a church to try to build a life that fulfilled the promise embedded in this country’s founding documents. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When Greg Martin set out to research Missoula’s black history, the last thing he expected was to find its early epicenter next door to his Westside home.

Now he’s urging the city to find a way to recognize the 1427 Phillips St. address as the site of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.), the hub of religious, social and cultural activity for Missoula’s black residents from 1910 to the late 1930s.

As he dug through newspaper accounts, fire insurance maps, census records and Montana history, Martin slowly uncovered the history of St. Paul A.M.E. – notably, the bravery of its congregation in the face of bigotry among Missoula’s early 20thcentury residents and threats of violence from the Ku Klux Klan.

In fact, Klansmen twice paraded into the church during services, ostensibly to donate to an improvement fund, but more certainly to put the congregation on notice “to respect and keep their place in the social and racial hierarchy of white Protestant supremacy,” Martin said.

In a presentation to the Missoula City Council, Martin noted that February’s designation as Black History Month “could be something of an abstraction for many in this town, where our black population is so low.”

But, he said, the racial population of any American city (large or small) directly reflects its history – an observation that may appear obvious, but should nonetheless be proclaimed “out loud and … in bold letters.”

“And so on Black History Month, I ask the city to find a way to recognize the history of St. Paul A.M.E.,” Martin said. “To remember that the first generation of emancipated black Americans came to Missoula and started a church to try to build a life that fulfilled the promise embedded in this country’s founding documents.

“I urge you to recognize this institution – its promises and the challenges it faced and the climate that saw its members as second-class citizens.”

1921 Sandborn Map of the 1400 block of Phillips Street in Missoula, MT. Apart from property deed records, this is one of the only public records showing the active Black church in Missoula.

Martin has published the findings of his research online at the site Medium, and encouraged council members and Mayor John Engen to read the history and consider ways to possibly recognize the institution at its center.

Martin has lived on Phillips Street for 19 years. His neighbors’ home no longer bears any resemblance to the church it once was, having been remodeled by several generations of owners that followed the building’s sale by St. Paul A.M.E.

In fact, he has not been able to find a photograph of the church in any local, state or church archives.

In the early days of the 20thcentury, the establishment of a black church ignited a veritable firestorm of protests and hastily called Westside neighborhood meetings.

Here’s what Martin learned about the church’s founding:

“In April 1909, the Missoulian reported that a pastor from the 5th District of the A.M.E. Church was actively forming a local congregation in Missoula similar to ones fully established in Helena, Butte, Great Falls and Billings. The pastor said he already had 13 members who were busy trying to find a location.

“That location, announced in the paper on April 6, 1910, was the old Lowell School building on the 1400 block of Phillips Street. The Missoula School Board agreed in a meeting the evening before to sell the property to the A.M.E. for $200.”

News of the sale revealed the bigotry entrenched in Missoula’s overwhelmingly white population.

Martin wrote: “On April 22, 1910, just two weeks after the sale of the old Lowell School building was announced, area neighbors gathered at the new Lowell School building on Sherwood with the stated purpose of taking ‘all lawful ways and means at our command to prevent the colonization of the west side by negroes.’ Interestingly, the article did not identify any of the members present. But it did reveal the difficult lengths it took for the church to obtain the property — an obstacle that likely faced any black buyer of real estate at the time.”

In fact, the hastily formed Fourth Ward Improvement Club announced its intention “to boycott any real estate dealer or business man who allowed black citizens to rent or buy property in the neighborhood.”

But the A.M.E. church’s leaders quietly persisted, building a small church on the site, laying the cornerstone in 1915, and hosting not only religious services but also an Emancipation Proclamation celebration, a box social, frequent choir concerts, social groups and a popular yearly Southern barbecue in Greenough Park.

The 1910 census counted 148 black residents of Missoula. By the early 1920s, St. Paul A.M.E. had about 30 full members, then 35 at its peak.

The percentage of black residents in Missoula County reached its height in 1930, when they accounted for a very modest 0.5 percent of the population, according to Martin. But even that low number fell dramatically by 1960, when blacks made up just .12 percent of Missoula citizens.

Around that same time, the Ku Klux Klan organized a chapter in Missoula. And on the evening of June 29, 1923, Klansmen made the first of two appearances at an A.M.E. service, parading up the aisle.

Reaching the front, the hooded, white-robed men formed a semi-circle and faced the congregation, according to a newspaper account. They offered a $20 donation to the improvement fund.

Martin wrote: “The entitlement Klan members felt interrupting the service and commanding the attention of the congregation was a clear distillation of the social freedoms afforded the reactionary organization at the time.

“And while their new approach was less overtly violent than when they were stringing the charred bodies of black Americans up for public display just 50 years earlier, the message was still the same: This country was the primary province of white Protestant men.”

Again, the congregation continued forward for another 10 or 15 years before dispersing as Missoula’s black citizens sought work and a better life elsewhere.

“Black history is American history,” Martin said in his recent presentation to City Council members. While it may be better known and documented in the nation’s larger, more diverse cities, it’s no less important “in the places where there are so few.”

Engen and several City Council members told Martin they were interested in reading the results of his historic research, published as “Hiding in Plain Sight: St. Paul A.M.E. Church & Missoula’s Forgotten Black History.”