The Rev. Dale B. Snyder hasn’t been a Pittsburgher for long, but he feels a crime committed against his congregation six decades ago more acutely than most natives of these parts.
The 63-year-old has been the pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Hill District since 2019. It is the city’s oldest Black church with, arguably, the richest pre-Civil Rights history.
“Big Bethel,” as it was known at the height of its influence, was founded in 1808 and was originally located Downtown. During the tumultuous 19th century, Bethel AME was a center of abolitionism and educational uplift and a reliable stop along the Underground Railroad. It was a bulwark against the doctrine of white supremacy at a time when the second-class status of Black Americans was codified in law and social practice.
In 1908, after a devastating fire and a segregationist backlash made it untenable for large numbers of Black Christians to gather for worship Downtown, Bethel AME moved to a new sanctuary in the Lower Hill District that had taken 55 years of blood, sweat and tears to build.
As Rev. Snyder makes clear in his presentations chronicling the history of Big Bethel, the 1,900-strong congregation of the early 1900s contributed much to the economic vitality of the Lower Hill that went far beyond its numbers in terms of patronizing businesses and contributing to the neighborhood’s cultural life.
Bethel AME was a teaching, healing and aspirational presence within Pittsburgh’s Black community at a time when Jim Crow was the official ideology of American social and political life. In the South African context, Jim Crow would come to be known as apartheid.
Bethel AME was also one of the institutions that waves of Black Southerners who came to Pittsburgh for jobs in the steel industry during the Great Migration turned to for initial resources and guidance for navigating the region. That had been Bethel AME’s role in Pittsburgh for more than a century.
Then along came another instrument of social control called “urban redevelopment.” In 1955, without consulting the affected communities, the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority — the URA — began seizing large swaths of land in the Lower Hill, where there was the greatest economic development, foot traffic, Black entrepreneurship and commercial activity, to counter what was euphemistically referred to by city planners as “urban blight.”
Big Bethel had barely made it to its half-century mark in its new location when it was seized by eminent domain in 1957. It would be razed — along with other real estate important to the mixed community of Blacks, Jews and Syrians of the Lower Hill — to make way for the Civic Arena, an architecturally grotesque monument to corporate greed and political malpractice that cut off easy access between the Hill and Downtown Pittsburgh for generations.
Bethel AME was given “compensation” to relocate to its current location at 2720 Webster Ave. in the Upper Hill, but it was a space that could only accommodate 900 of its 1,900 parishioners. It is also close to another AME church and several other large Black congregations, a situation that further diluted its effectiveness.
Upon learning of Bethel AME’s history, Rev. Snyder, who had headed churches in Columbus, Cleveland, Youngstown and Erie before accepting the call to ministry in Pittsburgh, recognized the epic scale of the injustice that had been perpetrated upon a once historically active congregation that now numbers in the dozens.
He is not shy about using another word that gives many people pause — reparations. My next few columns will be devoted to Rev. Snyder’s battle for reparations for Bethel AME Church. As the current president of the Hill District Ministers Alliance, he has a morally defensible case for redress by the city, the URA, the Pittsburgh Penguins and several other municipal entities.
More importantly, Rev. Snyder has a plan, allies and history on his side.
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.