Photo courtesy Bethel AME's Facebook page.

When Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church opened its doors to Pittsburgh’s African American community in 1808, it did not make distinctions between those born free and those deposited in its Downtown sanctuary by the porters of the Underground Railroad.

Even in its earliest days as the city’s first Black-owned and operated institution, Bethel AME was not afraid to assert the rights of its congregants in a democracy that failed to fully acknowledge their humanity, much less any obligations of citizenship flowing from it.

That didn’t stop “Big Bethel” from building the first elementary school for Black students in Pittsburgh. The church also became a bastion of abolitionists and forward-looking congregants who dared to imagine a brighter future for themselves and their children.

This tradition of community liberation and uplift continued well into the next century as the national civil rights movement was coming into its own in the 1950s. If there was any dreaming, organizing, marching or protesting to be done in the Hill District where it had relocated in 1908, the plans were usually drawn up at Bethel AME.

The Rev. Dale B. Snyder, Big Bethel’s pastor since 2019, embodies this spirit. Upon learning of its history and how the church was displaced along with much of the Lower Hill to make way for the Civic Arena, he made it Bethel’s mission to educate the entire community about a historic wrong and reverse it.

“Rev. Dale has always been able to quell my cynicism,” says Martin Rafanan, a retired Lutheran pastor who lives in the Hill District. “He believes in prayer, telling the truth and standing firm for justice. So far, to my utter amazement, that is what is working, although I’m still waiting to see how the promises will be realized.”

When Bethel launched its first petition drive listing its demands, it caught the Peduto administration and many of the city’s power players by surprise. Bethel had previously been so quiet.

“Today,” Rev. Snyder, the petition’s author, wrote, “the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority, Pittsburgh City Council, the Office of the Mayor of Pittsburgh, the Sports & Exhibition Authority and the Pittsburgh Penguins are negotiating new plans for the area.

“Now is the time to restore the harm done to the Black residents and members of Bethel AME Church by returning the land that was unlawfully taken.

“By signing this petition, you’re telling Pgh City Council, the URA, the Mayor, SEA and the Penguins to demonstrate leadership and rectify this harm done to its residents.

“There are still members of Bethel alive today who experienced this injustice. It’s time to acknowledge the terrible history, and with brave leadership, pave a new way forward together.”

The petition spurred supportive words from the Penguins and the URA which had been the blunt instrument of eminent domain in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Peduto administration was willing to deal, too. “Memorandums of understanding” were produced clearly encapsulating many of the church’s goals.

When Mayor Bill Peduto lost his reelection bid, Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration indicated it wasn’t “bound” by previous MOUs issued by Peduto and would have to look at the situation. While the Gainey administration was doing due diligence, Rev. Snyder was busy visiting churches and cultivating allies at like-minded progressive institutions. Rather than have Bethel go it alone, Rev. Snyder decided to build a multi-racial, multi-denominational coalition.

Rev. Dale Snyder. Photo by Tony Norman.

Then at the end of September, Rev. Snyder announced a breakthrough via an email to Big Bethel’s supporters: “Greetings, Family. We troubled heaven and God answered our request. Update on historic meeting with the mayor’s office Chief of Staff Jake Wheatley, three members of the Penguins’ staff and two members of SEA. All parties agreed to the list below. Thank you, Mayor Gainey, for stopping and checking the agreements. Thanks to Jake Wheatley and Doris Carson Williams for your outstanding leadership in negotiating this agreement. Thanks to the Bethel AME Church family, all of our allies and prayer partners.”

This is the draft agreement:

“We get our development rights and land back with the following understanding,” Rev. Snyder wrote.

A) If the historic location of Old Big Bethel is under a current road that cannot be developed, it will move to a location in the Lower Hill Development. This location will be the same size as Old Big Bethel, including the footage of the three homes we owned in the Lower Hill. B) Old Big Bethel’s historic location will receive markers designating our history. C) We have full development rights and ownership of the land. D) In two weeks, the Penguins will present the location for the development. E) In one month, we will reconvene with the agreed development. The city has agreed to help with resources.”

“Rev. Dale has always been able to quell my cynicism,” said Martin Rafanan, a retired Lutheran pastor who lives in the Hill District. “He believes in prayer, telling the truth, and standing firm for justice. So far, to my utter amazement, that is what is working, although I’m still waiting to see how the promises will be realized.”

In an interview given prior to the breakthrough, Rev. Snyder summed up his strategy succinctly. “I’m an old-school activist. If you don’t have it in writing, it don’t exist.”

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Read previous installments about Bethel AME.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.