As conversations heat up over development plans for the Lower Hill District, one voice is drawing religious history into the spotlight.
Bethel AME Church, founded in 1808, was once a thriving congregation and center of learning and social activism. As part of the Lower Hill redevelopment project of the 1950s, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh [URA] seized the church by eminent domain and demolished it.
The more the congregation has learned about the situation since — the value of the property versus the $240,000 in compensation they received, the fact that a neighboring white church wasn’t torn down — the more they understand the demolition as an act of racism. They feel Bethel was targeted as a progressive Black congregation without options for legal recourse.
“We had nobody we could go to and sue in the ’50s,” said Rev. Dale Snyder, Bethel’s current pastor, citing the racial violence they could face for making “too much noise.” Snyder arrived at Bethel 16 months ago, having previously served as a pastor and activist in Erie and Cleveland.
The church property became part of the Civic Arena site, and Bethel struggled to attract new members and serve its displaced community’s needs from a less central location up the Hill.
Now Bethel members are seeking reparations. They are challenging the city, the redevelopers of the Lower Hill and local white faith communities to acknowledge how they have participated in or profited from racist systems and to compensate Bethel for its losses.
Diamonte Walker, deputy executive director of the URA, is a fifth-generation Hill resident. “The way that development was done in years prior has been historically and emotionally harmful, particularly to Black people,” she said. “…There is no dollar amount that I think could ever repair and mend the breach of what was lost when Bethel was demolished.”
The congregation’s forceful leader brings its still-evolving demands into the 11th hour of a complex negotiation over the Hill’s future. The Bethel coalition emerges alongside other community groups — the Hill Community Development Corporation, the Hill District Consensus Group, the Black Political Empowerment Project — with visions of justice for the Hill amid this rife moment of redevelopment.
Bethel’s efforts are parallel but distinct. They seek the land, development rights and funding they say they need to once again become a spiritual, social and educational cornerstone in the Hill District.
“The church was there. It was where we went for hope,” said Jamaal Craig, a community activist and civil rights historian. “Instead of dwelling on, ‘It’s gone, it was beautiful,’ like, what can we be doing now to restore that?”
Old Bethel: a ‘citadel of hope’
From its beginnings, Bethel AME was more than just a house of worship. It was the site of Pittsburgh’s first Black elementary school, a partner of Wilberforce University, an aid in the establishment of Payne Theological Seminary and a stop on the Underground Railroad.
For its first 30 or so years, Bethel met in small church buildings it purchased from other congregations. When a fire destroyed their meeting place in 1845, the congregation decided it was time to build a church of their own. They purchased property in the heart of the Hill District and raised the funds to construct a large, Romanesque-style church that could accommodate 1,900 members at a time.
“It was a citadel of hope,” Snyder said.
In its central location, the church’s social and cultural influence only grew. Worship on Sundays was an all-day affair, with services in the morning, afternoon and evening, plus Sunday school for children and gatherings for high school students.
“It was a place of comfort. It was like family,” said Mary Burleigh, who has been a member of Bethel all her life and is now “many, many years past 80.”
Betty Lee Moore agrees. Her family joined Bethel almost 100 years ago in 1924, and she was a child there in the 1930s. Some of her earliest memories of “Big Bethel,” as members call the former Lower Hill location, include singing in the children’s choir and watching her father and grandfather serve as church officials.
“During those times, a lot of Black people didn’t have positions of leadership, so it was important for people to have leadership roles in the church,” said her daughter Martha Moore, who is also a lifelong Bethel member.
Sundays were only the start of it. Bethel ran programs for before and after school. It created a Black Nurses Association, dedicated to improving the health of the congregation and community. It was an organizing center for Pittsburgh’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, including a seminal meeting about police brutality in the early 1950s.
“Back then, the church was open basically every day,” said Rev. Prudence L. Harris, a lifelong member of Bethel and an associate pastor there since 2018. Harris’ mother joined Bethel in 1938.
As a young person, Harris thought she was too radical to be a clergywoman. “My grandmother told me I was going to be a minister or pastor, and I told her I was too militant. She said, ‘What do you think Jesus was?’”
At Bethel, Harris’ social and spiritual concerns never felt in conflict. Her church mentors were also leaders in the NAACP, and young activists’ meetings often convened at the church.
Bethel’s location in the heart of the Lower Hill fueled its import. It was a literal and metaphorical center of the community, Craig said. Many members walked to the church, and its membership in turn supported the economic vitality of the surrounding area.
“We were a 3,000-member congregation,” Snyder said. “Because we were there, you had the entertainment section. You had 3,000 people to market to.”
Demolition: ‘We were in disbelief’
In 1955, the Urban Redevelopment Authority announced plans for the Lower Hill redevelopment project, an initiative they promised would wipe away “blight” and usher in economic prosperity. The crowning jewel would be the Civic Arena, a huge project that would require razing most of the buildings in the heart of the Lower Hill — including Bethel’s.
When members heard the news, they were stunned.
“Everybody was in disbelief. We had been there for so many years. We served the community,” said Burleigh, who was in her 20s at the time.
Where Bethel members saw a family, a home, a social and spiritual center, city officials saw a slum to clear. Then-city council member George E. Evans wrote in an editorial in the 1940s that most of the buildings in the Lower Hill had “outlived their usefulness,” so “there would be no social loss if they were all destroyed.”
Bethel members appealed to the URA repeatedly for a reprieve, but the URA denied their requests. It seized the church’s property by eminent domain. Because the URA was technically not a city entity, it could exercise that power. Section 2602 of the city’s eminent domain laws prohibited their use to “enter upon, appropriate, take, injure or destroy any church property.” The state laws only granted exceptions for colonial and revolutionary war era historical sites.
Members were particularly devastated to learn that the Church of the Epiphany, only two blocks away, would be spared. Epiphany was a Catholic church with a largely Irish population, and the mayor at the time was Irish Catholic. Bethel members suspect that factored into the city’s decisions.
“With the URA, it was more or less who you know and who you didn’t know,” said Harris, who began to research Bethel’s situation as a young adult. She was 5 years old at the time of the demolition and recalls riding down with her family to watch it take place.
The demolition started in 1957, and in 1958, the URA acquired the property deed from Bethel in exchange for $240,000 in damages. Bethel was among 1,300 buildings demolished, including at least eight houses of worship.
The congregation spent the next two years in limbo, worshipping out of a Seventh Day Adventist church as they hurried to construct a new building. When the building was complete in 1959, the congregation was thrilled to have a spiritual home once again. Still, their losses hung heavy in the air.
Some losses were material. They had moved from the corner of Wylie and Elm, a buzzing city center, to Webster and Morgan, a place where “you would only find it if you got lost,” Snyder said, laughing for a moment before becoming serious. Members who used to walk to Bethel were now scattered among other area congregations.
“It was sad because a lot of people lived in the Lower Hill, where we were, and, of course, when they tore our church down, they tore their homes down,” Betty Lee Moore said.
In its new location, Bethel was also only a three-minute walk away from another African Methodist Episcopal church, Trinity AME. The proximity hurt both congregations, but especially Trinity, which was smaller to start. Trinity is scheduled to merge with Bethel later this year due to its declining numbers.
Other losses Bethel suffered were spiritual.
“Can you imagine the feeling of those 3,000 members?” Snyder said. “The God that they serve was not able to save their church.”
Still, they kept their faith— in God and in justice. “We continue to move forward in serving our congregation and in serving our community,” Burleigh said.
Development déjà vu
Fast forward to the present, and the Lower Hill is once again up for redevelopment. The Civic Arena demolition started in September 2011, leaving 28 acres of prime real estate where the Hill meets Downtown.
Some of the key players from the 1950s are the same. The URA and a city/county entity, the Sports and Exhibition Authority, own the land. Others are new. The Penguins, operating as the Pittsburgh Arena Real Estate Redevelopment LP [PAR], hold the development rights. They are working hand-in-hand with the developer Buccini/Pollin Group [BPG].
PAR and BPG are looking to pull off a $1 billion redevelopment of the former Civic Arena site, including a 26-story modern office tower that will serve as a corporate headquarters for First National Bank. They hope to break ground on the first phases or blocks of the project this summer.
At a recent Development Activities Meeting, the developers promised community members they would preserve the Hill District’s cultural heritage and economic viability for residents.
“We do truly believe that for this project in the Lower Hill District to succeed, all of the Hill District needs to succeed,” said BPG co-president Chris Buccini.
Bethel members sensed their story was missing from the conversation.
They remembered how the URA had displaced their members in the 1950s and largely failed on a commitment to create jobs and affordable housing around the Civic Arena.
They contrasted that record with their own history of sustaining community interests. Bethel had once stood at the center of a socially vibrant Lower Hill.
This isn’t “religious pie-in-the-sky,” Craig said. “This is practical.” It’s about “education, job creation, wealth, training.”
Calling for reparations
With that vision, Bethel and its community allies are doing what AME church leaders have done for more than 230 years. They are organizing.
The coalition’s first goal is to seek compensation for Bethel’s losses. They seek support from three main entities:
- The city, who seized the property;
- the Penguins, who stand to financially benefit from the property;
- and local religious communities, especially those that could have come to Bethel’s aid in the 1950s and did not.
To determine what forms of support they seek, the coalition is researching recommendations from the National African-American Reparations Commission and identifying gaps in local resources. These include needs for income-inclusive housing, early childhood education programs and job training centers.
Their first ask: the land and development rights to Bethel’s former property in the Lower Hill.
“We should have a right to say what happens to our land,” Snyder said. “It’s sacred. We buried our people from that place. We married our people from that place.”
Last weekend, Bethel members sat down with the Penguins to ask for their support. They hoped the arrangement could be a “win-win” — a chance for Bethel to see justice and for the developers to make good on their promise to respect the Hill District’s history and culture while partnering with local organizations.
While Bethel wished for the negotiations to remain private at this time, they emerged from the meeting feeling heard and encouraged. “We’re excited as a congregation to go from conversation to reality,” Snyder said.
Penguins Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel Kevin Acklin said that, although the Penguins were not established until 1967, they take their responsibility as the “stewards” of the Lower Hill District development seriously.
“We know the history of the site. It was a tragic demolition that occurred in the 1950s,” he said. “We’re very much committed to righting past wrongs.”
After meeting Snyder, he said the development team has offered to help Bethel assemble properties to build new housing and a worker training center. Acklin said they also discussed collaborating to help Black workers get jobs in the building trades and other professions.
Developing a way forward
The coalition’s second initiative, which they are pursuing alongside their goals in the Lower Hill, is a self-sustaining development project in the Middle and Upper Hill.
Many of the properties surrounding Bethel and Trinity are available for development, and, after the two congregations merge, Trinity’s property will be ready to repurpose. The coalition is in talks with Derrick Tillman of Bridging the Gap Development to turn those vacant lots into a multi-block, community-centered development. They’re looking at several funding sources, including a mix of local, state and federal grants, union funds and nonprofit contributions.
The coalition anticipates that low- to moderate-income housing will be a key element of the project. Snyder also has plans for an educational center, carrying on Bethel’s legacy as a place for learning.
“What happens next is so important,” said Greg Spencer, a member of Bethel and local business leader. He continued, “I want to make sure that we’re knocking on people’s doors for real, finding out what they really need.”
Mayor Bill Peduto wrote in a statement to PublicSource that he supports partnerships with faith-based organizations and preserving the history of the Hill.
Peduto is making affordable housing a key platform in his re-election campaign and is interested in pursuing housing assistance through URA programs. The mayor has met with Bethel–Trinity coalition leaders and, according to their reports, directed their attention to several potential sources of funding, including the Bedford CHOICE federal grants.
The URA hopes to avoid repeating past errors in the present. As a starting place, it has offered Trinity a $10,000 Equitable Empowerment Fund grant that would pay for services by the nonprofit Neighborhood Allies. The grant is designed to help move the Trinity development project from vision to more concrete concept, something Walker said was missing from her initial conversations with the coalition leaders.
Walker conveyed her sense of the stakes.
“There was an under-valuation of Black life and Black culture in the Lower Hill,” Walker said. When the URA tore down “Mother Bethel,” she said, it also tore apart the Hill’s “social fabric” — a community that “kept people afloat for a very, very long time.”
Bethel is wary. To them, the URA has not done enough to correct past errors. They said the URA has pushed them off on Neighborhood Allies, not clearly explained the processes they must follow and, most importantly, evaded their concerns about the Lower Hill.
When Bethel asked about the Lower Hill property, the URA’s Walker reached out to the Penguins, requesting the development team meet with Snyder. Snyder was troubled by the response: given the URA’s history and part-ownership of the property, the redirect felt like “kicking the can down the road.”
Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, acknowledged the complexity of Bethel’s case, when it comes to determining where to take up their concerns. “I’m not sure if the Penguins in this situation are the proper place,” he said, “or if it’s the government that allowed this to happen that [Snyder] should be working through.”
Solidarity on the Hill?
The Bethel coalition is not alone in its calls for justice for the Hill District.
Other organizations, including the Hill District Community Development Corporation [Hill CDC], are also pushing the developers and city to address past injustices. In response, the Penguins have offered a term sheet of investments that they say reflect the 2014 Community Collaboration Implementation Plan, but they have yet to win over the Hill CDC and others in the community.
In a recent outline of their goals for community reinvestment, the Hill CDC called upon the URA to provide “direct relief and investment” for Bethel’s needs. Marimba Milliones, president of the Hill CDC, said she hopes communication, collaboration and transparency can secure justice for the entire Hill, including Bethel. She said the Hill shouldn’t face an “either-or situation,” where the city and developers address one group’s concerns while ignoring others.
Bethel members are open to collaborating with other community groups whose concerns align with their own. Still, when it comes to pursuing reparations for Bethel, they want their own seat at the table.
“We’ve been blackballed,” Snyder said. “We were purposely left out of the conversation for 10 years.” A strong-willed activist, Snyder has resolved to take a bolder, sharper-elbowed approach than his predecessors at the church when it comes to defending its rights in the community.
“There are a lot of people talking about Bethel, not a lot talking to Bethel,” Spencer said.
According to Wheatley, one of the difficulties with the Lower Hill development is the sheer number of community voices involved, all raising serious concerns and emerging at different points of the project. “We should have a collective table and try to address them,” he said, To reset a years-long conversation upon the emergence of a new voice would be tricky, he added.
The coalition views its position among community groups in the Hill District as distinctive for Bethel’s long history and connection to the broader AME tradition.
“We’ve been here for 213 years,” Snyder said. “We’ve been here during slavery, and we’re still here.”
In that history, they see a vision for what Bethel’s role might be in the Hill District going forward.
Craig said: “We are looking to bring about solutions to help the community grow and help the community heal.”
This story was updated on May 6, 2021 to reflect new information on the era’s eminent domain laws.
Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s faith and religion reporter. She can be reached at [email protected].
Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @richelord.
Naomi Harris covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at [email protected].
This story was fact-checked by Danielle Cruz.