I am continuing to celebrate Black History Month by sharing photos and information from my recent visits to local historical sites with ties to African American history. St. John AME Zion Church is one of several historic Black churches in Wilson, North Carolina. I chose it to visit before I visited the Freeman Round House Museum, but I was glad to see that information about the church was included at the Round House Museum—information which helped me to put the site in context. Much of the information below is from the Round House Museum, which again, I highly recommend.
Established in 1868, the St. John African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church is one of the oldest African American churches in Wilson. After slavery ended, African Americans formed their own church congregations, a freedom often denied them in slavery. Enslaved people had to either worship as second-class citizens in the churches of their enslavers or secretly in groups at risk of punishment.
The national African Methodist Episcopal Zion church movement began in 1800 when the first AME Zion church was built in New York in response to discrimination toward Black members of a Methodist church congregation. The denomination was officially established as separate from the Methodist Church in 1821. It then began spreading to the South, advocating for abolition and supporting newly freed African Americans.
The congregation of St. John AME Zion Church was formed in 1868, but the church building pictured here was built in 1915, around the same time that Jackson Chapel First Missionary Baptist Church was built, another historically Black church in downtown Wilson. Jackson Chapel’s cornerstone was laid by Booker T. Washington when he visited Wilson in 1910.
Black churches played vital roles in the building of African American community, the Civil Rights Movement, and the social lives of Black Wilsonians. St. John AME Zion’s pastor, Rev. Richard A.G. Foster, used his position to speak in support of tobacco workers’ rights, work that was at that time dominated by African Americans, and to white Wilsonians about prejudice and racism.
Another pastor of St. John AME Zion, Owen L. W. Smith, who was born into slavery, later served as the US minister to Liberia.
St. John AME Zion church recently celebrated its 150th anniversary and continues to serve the community from this beautiful, historic structure.