The Rev. David Jarrett Sr. said he regards Bethel AME the “gateway to Midtown.” The church held a recognition ceremony Saturday August 19, 2023. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Rita Lockridge and Aleta Brown remember the former location of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church being massive. 

The  house of worship at the corner of Frederick and St. Antoine in Detroit’s Cultural Center had two floors, two basements, box seats and a blue neon cross over the sanctuary. 

And there are the personal memories, too. 

As kids growing up at Bethel in the 1960s and 1970s, Lockridge and Brown say their  lives revolved around the church. Lockridge participated in a youth group, where she was introduced to activities like camping and horseback riding. While Brown remembers the balcony as the place to be for young people during Sunday service, which sometimes led to shenanigans. 

Members of Bethel AME Church held a ceremony Saturday August 19, 2023, across from the church’s former site where a new development is being built. The church relocated to its current home in the 1970s, but developers of AME’s last home found relics of its past underground during excavation. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

“We used to play hooky,” Brown, 74, told BridgeDetroit. “Typically a lot of us, the younger people, would go to Sunday school, but then sometimes when junior church was going on, you’d find us at the store. We knew how to get back to that church by the time service was out, so parents didn’t know we had not been there. 

“They didn’t take me, I was younger,” Lockridge, 65, added with a laugh. 

More than 50 years later, the friends remain active members of Bethel AME and have seen the church go through its share of changes. In 1974, the institution moved a couple of blocks to its current location at 5050 St. Antoine, but a recent commemorative event offered a chance for members to reminisce about the church’s past while learning about the site’s future. 

A blast from the past  

Bethel AME and Julio Bateau, managing partner of development company Nailah LLC, held a memorial and recognition ceremony Saturday across the street from the former church, which is being redeveloped into the mixed-use development Petit Bateau. During site excavation, the construction crew discovered surviving sections of brick walls and basement flooring from the former AME church building. 

The event included a procession from the church to the construction site, remarks from Rev. David Jarrett, Sr., Bateau, Detroit Deputy Mayor Todd Bettison and a performance from Detroit’s “Queen of the Blues” Thornetta Davis. City of Detroit Historian Jamon Jordan closed the ceremony with an oral history on Bethel AME and the surrounding neighborhood. 

Members of Bethel AME pick up roses on Saturday August 19, 2023, to place where the church formerly stood at the corner of Frederick and St. Antoine. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

“My philosophy of doing business has always been to build upon and maintain it to the extent possible, the stoic nature, look and feel of this Midtown Detroit neighborhood, at the same time, providing modern conveniences,” said Bateau, who has developed six other properties in the Cultural Center neighborhood. “It is easily overlooked that what is now called historic was once a movement. Long ago, Bethel AME members that built this church created a movement nearly 100 years ago.” 

Rev. David Jarrett, Sr., pastor of Bethel AME, said he approves of the development and that the property will be used “for the blessing of humankind.” 

Blues singer Thornetta Davis performs during the memorial and recognition ceremony for Bethel AME on Saturday, August 19, 2023. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

The project consists of two 38-unit mixed-use buildings and 28 residential townhouses in four buildings. Twenty percent of units will be reserved for affordable housing, Bateau said. The development is expected to cost nearly $42 million and be completed in 2025. 

“The ministries of Bethel church will be open to the new residents who soon will call this place home,” Jarrett said during the ceremony. “Bethel church is located at the gateway of Midtown. You cannot come from I-75 north or south without passing the gateway called Bethel.” 

The cornerstone of Detroit’s Black community

The foundation for Bethel AME started to come together in 1839 when a group of 50 Black Detroiters formed the Colored Methodist Society. On May 10, 1841, the congregation became known as Bethel AME Church and on July 30, 1849, the church was formally incorporated. Bethel AME was the second Black church founded in Detroit after Second Baptist Church, Jordan said during the ceremony. 

Rev. Marcell Todd, Sr. , Pastor of Bethel AME the Rev. Dr. David R. Jarrett, Sr., and Rev. Dr. Beverly Hair on August 19, 2023. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

The church moved around several times during its early years. Bethel AME built its first church in 1847 on Lafayette and Fort streets for $2,300. In 1889, a second church was constructed on Napoleon and Hastings streets. 

By the early 1920’s, Bethel AME’s congregation had blossomed to more than 2,000 and became a safe place for the Black community to worship, host civic and community organizations and entertainment events. To accommodate its growing membership, the church moved once again in 1925 to Frederick and St. Antoine. 

Bethel AME Church on the northwest corner of Frederick and St. Antoine streets in the 1950s. (Courtesy photo from Detroit Historical Society)

In the 1970s, a planned city boulevard in the area prompted Bethel AME to relocate in 1974 to where it stands today. 

“Black churches…that’s all we had as Black people,” Lockridge said. “Everything was held here. Black churches are where Black families gathered for knowledge. That’s all you had because nobody was going to be able to tell you your history.” 

Several members of Bethel AME were widely known for making an impact in the community. Among them, the church’s former pastor Rev. William Peck. In 1930, he founded the Booker T. Washington Trade Association, which supported Black businesses. Its sister organization was the Housewives League of Detroit, which was under the leadership of Peck’s wife, Fannie Peck. The organization encouraged Black housewives to patronize Black businesses.

In 1941, member Rosa Lee Slade Gragg purchased a house on Brush and Ferry streets. It became the headquarters for the Detroit Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Jordan said. 

“To this day, the Detroit Association of Women’s Club–they no longer use the word colored–still owns the club and the parking lot across the street,” he said. “They were the first to own land on that part of Ferry Street because from Brush to Hastings Street, Black people could live there. But from Brush to Woodward, they could not.” 

Other prominent community members who attended Bethel AME were the family of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy. His parents, Berry Gordy Sr. and Bertha Gordy, owned the Booker T. Washington grocery store in the neighborhood, Jordan said. 

Former Michigan Senator Arthur Cartwright and Secretary of State Richard Austin were also members, Lockridge noted. 

During his lecture, Jordan told the audience that the Cultural Center is full of history and that development is important when it connects people to their history. 

“If it demolishes, removes, erases our history, that’s the development we don’t want,” he said. “But a development that honors the history of what was there before that new development was built, that’s the kind of development that we support.” 

A second home 

Bethel AME continues to be a part of the Cultural Center neighborhood today, with voting rallies and hosting youth groups, Lockridge and Brown noted. 

Bethel AME also celebrated its 182nd anniversary in June with a banquet and two Sunday services. 

The Rev. David Jarrett Sr. of Bethel AME leads members in prayer during a reception following the memorial and recognition ceremony on Saturday, August 19, 2023. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Brown is the coordinator for the church’s weddings and funerals and publishes written materials for the congregation. She’s also part of Bethel AME’s tech team with Lockridge, which is in charge of getting Sunday services on Zoom. 

The two said after all these years, the church has become a second home. 

“These are my people,” Lockridge said. “There’s the history of the church, the history of my family. I can come here and take my shoes off and be here all day.” 

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