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Hastings, 1907: The burning of Brown’s Chapel AME

The church has been established two decades prior to give Hastings’ Black community a place of its own for worship.

historic photo of the congregation of browns chapel
The congregation of Brown’s Chapel, Hastings, gathered in front of their church. Photograph by Howard Crosby ca. 1900. The photo was originally published in the Hastings Gazette on September 2, 1949. Pictured are the congregation's minister (in the top hat), brass band musician John Goodman (front row, right), Mrs. Weldon, Mrs. Curry, and Mr. Wallace (at left in the second row). Bill Douglas stands on the platform in the rear.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Sometime past midnight on Friday, November 1, 1907, “the ringing of a fire bell rang out,” as reported in the Hastings Democrat. Brown’s Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) was engulfed in flames. The little white frame church that had stood on the corner of Fifth and Sibley Streets had been established by the Black residents of the Hastings community. Two weeks prior, they had celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of “having a place of their own.”

In the 1880s, most of the Black community of Hastings attended the Methodist Episcopal Church on Vermillion Street. The white members of the congregation, however, did not always welcome them. One particularly disturbing incident involved the christening of the children of James and Ella Curry. During the ceremony, the youngest child of a local white judge shouted a racist epithet as the couple brought their own children down the aisle. Whether this was unusual or the final straw in a series of slights, the incident motivated the Currys to begin organizing other Black community members to create a church of their own.

On October 11, 1890, the Currys and some of their neighbors came together to worship at the Fourth Street home of John and Nancy Wallace. Reverend J. C. Anderson of West St. Paul’s AME attended the meeting and recognized the new congregation on behalf of church leaders at the national AME headquarters in Philadelphia. Members subsequently elected James Wallace (son) as their class leader and John Wallace (father) treasurer and James Curry as their secretary. They continued to meet in private homes until late 1891, when they began renting rooms on the upper floor of the Hanson Brothers’ store. At the same time, they actively sought funding from each other to accomplish their goal of procuring a house of worship for their families.

In late 1891, an opportunity arose to purchase a twenty-four-by-thirty-six-foot white frame church at the corner of Fifth and Sibley Streets for five hundred dollars. Congregation members pledged what they could afford to meet their goal of raising two hundred dollars for a down payment. Reverend Anderson explained in a letter to the editor of the Hastings Gazette on December 26, 1891, that “experience has taught us the necessity of having a place of our own, where we may become permanently situated and worship God according to the dictates of our own consciences without shame or fear.”

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A July 16, 1892, article announced that “preparations are taking place for the opening of Brown’s Chapel. There are three services scheduled. The choir of the Methodist Church will sing in the afternoon, and voices from the twin cities are engaged for morning and evening. Reverend J. P. James from Minneapolis, a native Haitian, will preach during the day. The people of Hastings, of whatever religious opinion, are requested and cordially invited to attend.”

With financial support and help from both Black and white communities, Brown’s Chapel African Methodist Episcopal became a reality and opened on Sunday, October 17, 1892. For years afterward, it was the center of religious and social activities for Blacks in the area, with many weddings and funerals taking place there. Former Hastings residents visited the church after moving away, demonstrating their lasting ties to the community.

Early in the morning on Friday, November 1 — Halloween night — an arsonist entered the church through a back window, poured kerosene on the floor, and set a fire. The blaze ruined the floor, charred the pews, blackened the walls and ceilings, and broke the windows. Apart from two initial articles in the Hastings Gazette and Hastings Democrat, neither newspapers nor law enforcement pursued any further investigation into who started the fire, the community’s response, or efforts to raise funds to repair the extensive destruction.

Two years following the fire, it was reported that Brown’s Chapel had been sold to Graus Lumber for $300. The Methodist Episcopal Church, where the Curry family had endured racist insults during their children’s christening, continued to operate. In 1925, its pastor served as the chaplain of the local Ku Klux Klan.

The Black population of Hastings was 35 in 1900 and decreased substantially every decade thereafter. The death of the city’s last Black resident in 1954 left Hastings effectively all white for the remaining half of the century.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.