Bishop T. Larry Kirkland of the 5th Episcopal District is the anniversary speaker for the 157th observance of the founding of Bethel A.M.E. Church, 916 Laguna St. San Francisco on Sunday, March 1. Rev. J. Edgar Boyd is pastor.
Bethel A.M.E. Church is the result of the merger of several A.M.E. congregations begun in San Francisco starting in February 1852. At least three of its early members were involved in the Underground Railroad both before and after coming to San Francisco.
Rev. Thomas Marcus Decatur Ward, a nephew of orator Samuel Ringgold Ward, came to one of the churches in 1854 from New Bedford, MA.
Samuel R. Ward was an African American who escaped enslavement to become an abolitionist, newspaper editor and Congregational minister. He was author of the influential book: Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro: his anti-slavery labours in the United States, Canada and England, written after his speeches throughout Britain in 1853, enabled him to raise funds for the Anti-slavery Society of Canada where many escaped slaves from the USA were arriving in the 1850s.
By 1858, Rev. T.M.D. Ward had become the leader of A.M.E. members in San Francisco. Other churches were started by Rev. J.B. Sanderson, also from New Bedford, MA, and by Rev. Barney Fletcher, who had started the first A.M.E. church in California at Sacramento in 1850. He started a church in San Francisco in 1854 assisted by Rev. Darius Stokes, who had been active in the Free Colored Peoples Convention of Maryland and in the colonization movement..
An arson attempt against the church near Pacific and Montgomery in 1854 demonstrated the risks of forming a black church even in the Western frontier.
Ward follows in his uncle’s footsteps in the pages of Frederick Douglas’ Paper as early as 1855 in a speech in San Francisco to commemorate the anniversary of West Indian emancipation. He was a delegate to and chair of the education committee of the Colored Convention of California.
In 1854, he was recorded as giving a speech in support of fundraising for the abolition movement in San Francisco in Frederick Douglas’ Paper. As a member of the Executive Committee of the Colored Convention, Ward participated in the effort to free Archy Lee.
The group raised $50,000 in 1857 to fund lawyers in three trials which resulted in Lee’s freedom from a Georgia slave master who had brought him to California. The executive committee, according to Delilah Beasley in Negro Trailblazers of California, also spent $3,050 to pay for a tug boat The Goliath with a judge who arrested Lee’s slave master while he attempted to sail back East with Lee as a captive.
With the assistance of Mary Ellen Pleasant, who according to historian Dr. Susheel Bibbs, was also from New Bedford, an abolitionist hotbed, Lee was spirited to Canada from San Francisco.
After the beginning of the Civil War, Ward was president of the California Contraband Relief Association, which provided funds for the care of the freedmen.
Rev. J.B. Sanderson was born in New Bedford in 1821. By age 20, he was sharing a stage with Frederick Douglas in the presence of William Lloyd Garrison in Nantucket, MA in 1841. He learned the trade of barbering, which became important once in California. By 1854, when he arrived in California, Sanderson had been active in the anti-slavery movement for more than a decade.
The next year, Sanderson was elected secretary and an executive committee member of the Colored Convention of California in 1855 and a secretary of the next convention 1856.
By 1860, he was a speaker at the benefit for George Washington Dennis to repay the funds he advanced to support the legal fees in defense of Archy Lee.
James Williams was involved in building a church for Bethel A.M.E. He was author of Fugitive Slave in the Gold Rush: Life and Adventures of James Williams. Born in Elkton, MD in April 1825, Williams was carried on the Underground Railroad to conductor Asa Walton in 1838. By age 16, Williams was a conductor carrying as many as 14 persons in a covered wagon.
“I would have a load of slaves in there. I have carried as many as fourteen women and children at a time.” Constantly on the run from Wilmington, DE, to Reading, PA, to New York City, Philadelphia, Boston and then New Bedford, Williams “decided Canada was too cold so I decided to go to California.”
He worked for his passage on a ship from Panama to California and upon arriving in Sacramento, took a black slave woman from her master there. Williams helped rescue Archy Lee from recapture. “I was the first man in the frenzy, which occurred on the night of the attempted arrest…yet we succeeded in raising the man out and sent him to Vancouver Island,” as Williams describes the 1857 rescue of Archy Lee and was later appointed a collector for the A.M.E. Church in Sacramento. In 1869, he was appointed superintendent for the construction of a new building for Bethel A.M.E. The sanctuary was located at 1207 Powell Street, and was replaced after the 1906 quake, being used by the congregation through 1948, when it moved to its current quarters. The 1207 Powell Street site is now the Woh Hei Yuen Park, part of the City and County of San Francisco park system. There is no current notice of the historic location of Bethel A.M.E.