From June, 1854, regular Sabbath service was suspended and no covenant meetings until the following November; then the little band rejoiced and again took courage, was strengthened and rejuvenated with spiritual and material life, by the settlement of Rev. A. M. Torbet, from Ohio. His salary was $1000, of which amount the Church assumed $500 and voted to raise $200 for incidental expenses. Each year the commands of the Church property had been sent when due, and this year it was redeemed from mortgage, for which credit is largely due to women’s earnest and persistent efforts.
Lydia Gates “History of the First Baptist Church”
In 1860 the population of St. Paul was 10,279—of which 4,659 were foreign-born. By the end of the decade the total population had nearly doubled to 20,030 residents. This increase reflected not only an accelerated birthrate following the return of war veterans but also the renewed influx of foreign immigration. The period between 1867 and 1873 were years of general prosperity and economic growth for Minnesota. The lumber and construction industries revived, agricultural production increased, and eastern capital was again available for financing railroads and other industries. In St. Paul the new wave of prosperity was reflected in the number of growing businesses and temporary housing established seemingly overnight to meet the growing demand. The need for skilled and unskilled labor seemed infinite as building construction and its attendant industries revived from the wartime slump. This was the city into which black migrants entered, enticed by rumors of employment.
In 1860, 259 blacks lived within the state. Of that number 76 lived in St. Paul. By 1865 the black community of St. Paul, including Hickman and his followers, increased the population to 169. Between 1865 and 1875 the population steadily rose to 264 and had almost tripled by 1885. In contrast, between 1865 and 1875 the white population grew from 249,688 to 526,592, and by 1885 to 1,115,984. Though black migration to St. Paul continued throughout the remainder of the century, the black population of the city, after 1870, never exceeded 2 percent of the city’s total population. Toward the end of the 1860s the black population was well distributed throughout the city’s five wards. The heaviest concentration of housing and businesses were located in Ward Two along lower Jackson Street and Ward Three along West Third, Fourth, and Fifth Streets. This area was then in the heart of the city. Residential housing and business establishments were interspersed in a pattern consistent with a walking city. It was within this area that Pilgrim Baptist rented at least three locations between 1866 and 1870.
During the Civil War, residential accommodations were at a premium in the city, owing in large part to the absence of financial resources, skilled labor, and materials that were more urgently needed for the war effort. The housing shortage was more critical with the arrival of Hickman’s group and other contraband making their way to the city in 1863. Many of these migrants lacked skills needed for steady employment or were paid such low wages that they were not able to afford the exorbitant rent demanded for standard housing. Thus, the sites that the Pilgrims used were just as likely to be the result of the pooled resources of the church members as of the generosity of landlords, who likely viewed the religious services as vaguely familiar yet still quite alien. There is no record of their services, but from the research of scholars in the field, one can surmise how the Pilgrims’ services might have looked. Nonparishioners might see or hear “true believers” relating their conversion experiences, couching them in certain traditional phrases—I remember the day and the hour when the Lord spoke peace to my soul. Worshippers might “get happy” or “shout,” flailing their arms about, crying, running up and down the aisles, yelling Amen and Hallelujah! Shouting might be set off by a prayer or testimony, by singing or a sermon.
The sermon itself, steeped in the “old time religion” vein, painted vivid pictures of a stern father “who gave his only begotten Son to save a sin-sick world,” calling on sinners to seek salvation through the “four square gospel”—confession, repentance, regeneration, and sanctification. Other similarly situated ministers preached justification by faith, declaring that a man was not saved because he was good, but could only act good because he was saved. Once saved, a Christian may backslide, but he could be restored to fellowship by repentance and prayer. The immediate rewards of salvation—the “fruits of the Spirit”—were usually described as joy, peace, and a clear conscience. The ultimate rewards, however, are reserved for heaven, the final destination of the “saved.” Conversion, baptism, and confirmation were assumed to be the high spots in the Christian’s life, and the faithful met periodically at testimonial and prayer meetings to recount the circumstances of their conversion, to detail their “trials and tribulations,” and to declare their determination to “press on.” Preachers, too, sometimes related the circumstances of their own conversions, referring to that specific moment at home faraway in the South. In doing so, they shared the deepest part of themselves as Christians, thereby strengthening their connections with their flocks and reinforcing their collective sense of identity, which to the ears of white St. Paul landlords, was distinctly “colored” and Southern.
Blacks were not welcome in all sections of the city. As early as May 1866, the Pioneer complained of a health hazard existing in the “old rookery” on Wabasha Street. The Second Ward sanitary inspector found the building “inhabited solely by negroes . . . of all ages, sexes, and shades. In one room thirteen persons were sleeping every night.” A group of whites attacked the “negro rookery” in an attempt to drive out its occupants and succeeded in destroying the migrants’ meager personal belongings. In October white neighbors forced the removal of a large black family living on Seventh Street between Wabasha and Cedar because of an outbreak of smallpox among them.
During the early years of the Reconstruction era the black community in St. Paul was characterized by a majority of families dominated by male heads of households employed in low-paying skilled, or unskilled, and service-related jobs. There was a slight increase in the unmarried male population, which was characteristic of frontier conditions and migratory labor. But male and female heads of households generally owned real estate and personal property. The majority of these families lived in single-family dwellings, behind places of business or in hotels and boardinghouses. Some resided in multiple-family dwellings with white and black neighbors; and while there was no discernible pattern of residential segregation, residents—black and poor white—were concentrated around the city’s commercial core.
Black men could be found in a variety of unskilled jobs, but the majority of them filled positions of menial service and common labor. Some managed to establish themselves as independent barbers and others as businessmen, including restaurant and saloon proprietors. Few blacks, however, made it into the ranks of skilled craftsmen. During Reconstruction, blacks were excluded from the burgeoning union movement, which meant they were also denied apprenticeship training. Because of this the percentage of blacks in skilled trades steadily declined during the latter portion of the nineteenth century. Native-born whites and, to an increasingly greater extent, skilled immigrants dominated the craft trades. Locally the trades and crafts were monopolized by small family businesses within which skills passed down generationally. Family businesses tended to hire only relatives or other whites of the same ethnic or religious background. Unless a black possessed a skill before arriving in the city there were virtually no opportunities to acquire one. Until 1886 the St. Paul black community had no professional class. No members had been exposed to higher education. In other words, there were no black doctors, lawyers, or dentists, and not even any municipal or state employees. It was virtually impossible for blacks to compete for jobs above service and menial employment, work that in time became known as “nigger” work.
Discrimination was equally as harsh for black women. Though it is hard to assess how many women were required to work in order to supplement the family income before 1895, or how many were heads of their households, they nonetheless tended to work as laundresses, seamstresses, cooks, and domestics, though in this latter category, they often unsuccessfully competed against white immigrant women. In Red Wing in 1863, the Orrin Densmore family hired a local Swedish woman for domestic duty as they waited for contraband to be sent from the South by their son serving with the U.S. Colored Infantry in St. Louis. The Swede did not like the possibility of having to work alongside a former slave and worried that local people would see her and the African American as equals. She did not want to be “set aside for the ebony article.” Black women faced the imposition of compounded limitations in a society that discriminated because of race and gender.
Notably, in 1865 there was near parity in numbers between the sexes. With the increase of migration the city’s black population became imbalanced. By 1875 males averaging twenty-six years of age constituted 54 percent of the city’s black population, increasing to 62 percent ten years later. Between 1870 and 1885 the black population never exceeded 1.31 percent of the total population. “The surplus of men and the limited resources of the community,” historian David Taylor wrote, “directly affected institutional growth and development. One institution, the Black church, suffered more than any other.”
These figures reflect the challenge Hickman and the Pilgrims would face over the next twenty years. Their numbers constituted a small minority within a small minority though women’s church membership continued to grow. By 1889 women made up 63 percent of the congregation at Pilgrim Baptist in a community in which 60 percent were men. “These figures suggest that the male population was not a church going population.” This profile alone was not dissimilar to that of the congregation of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, the only early black congregation formed in the city without connections to a white denomination. Indeed, from the late 1870s to 1900 the entire denomination experienced a steady rise in its percentage of female members. Jon Butler has observed that by 1900, when women made up nearly 75 percent of the membership at Pilgrim Baptist, men comprised 60.8 percent of the black population over the age of twenty. Being a small black church within Minnesota’s capital city, the vitality of Pilgrim relied heavily on members who characteristically had meager financial resources, were a minority within their own racial demographic, lacked legal standing to vote, and faced the double discrimination of being female and black.
They were the “faithful few,” as one black minister said, who attended Sunday services regularly, went to prayer meetings and special services, contributed faithfully to the numerous collections, and organized, coordinated, and facilitated picnics, community celebrations, rallies, and financial drives. “Their lives revolved around religion and the church, and their emotional needs seemed to be met primarily by active participation in the worship ceremonies.” Prayer meetings and communion services were the most significant experiences in their common life, and such services were highly charged with emotion. They involved group singing, individual prayers, and “testifying.” The early survival of the church was due no doubt to Hickman’s inspirational, strategic, and tactical skills incumbent upon able leadership; but the operational viability of Pilgrim Baptist, for decades to come, fell on the shoulders of its women who, unlike their First Baptist counterparts, labored without the benefits of being white, middle class, and married to husbands with political and business ties to the city’s power elite. If anything, these black women were likelier to be in their white sisters’ employ. Nonetheless, it was they, through no other resource than the hard and usually anonymous labor of their own hands, who served as the backbone of their community’s institutional development.
Now we were six years old and we numbered sixty-five. God’s favor to Zion had come. After a two-year pastorate of success in winning souls, quickening believers, and general up-building, Brother Torbet resigned to become financial agent of the Minnesota Central University, leaving membership of 87, a net gain of 22 in the two years of arrival work.
Lydia Gates “history of the first baptist church”
The first planned community function occurred in August 1868, with the celebration of the emancipation of the slaves in the West Indies by Great Britain on August 1, 1834. The event, widely celebrating in the British Indies, likewise became customary among free blacks and white abolitionists in Northern cities throughout the antebellum period. The 1868 celebration would mark the beginning of the tradition in St. Paul. In later years the event, always held in the summer and open to the general public, would lead with a picnic followed by commemorative ceremonies showcasing some of the leading speakers in the community, and culminate with a grand ball. The tradition would continue in the Twin Cities until 1915. But on January 1, 1869, the celebration focused on the passage of Minnesota’s Negro suffrage amendment as well as the sixth annual recognition of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and was to be the second such community-wide function.
Both venues were logical places for Hickman to appear if he wanted to build the membership at Pilgrim. The August 1868 event, being the first, would indeed place him in front of a large audience. The question was, what would be his message? There is no record of what he did say yet circumstances dictated that the stakes were certainly high. This was not a religious gathering and the people present were not all Baptists nor necessarily religious, nor apparently were they all there for the same reason, as implied by news accounts. As mentioned earlier, typically the portion of black communities in St. Paul, indeed throughout the North, who attended churches was small in comparison to the total black population. Married couples and women constituted the bulk of the congregations in black communities where the majority was young black men. The eminent sociologist E. Franklin Frazier further noted that the church as a community institution was almost powerless in the face of sexual promiscuity (especially interracial), vice, and lawlessness. As a result, two distinct elements coexisted in the community—“sporting” people and Christians. Members of the “sporting” crowd—those, as reported in the Press, determined on drinking and raucously dancing into the night—would not be interested in listening to that old-time religion: Sin is good enough for me.
Indeed, Pilgrim Baptist’s brand of religiosity may not have appealed to many blacks in attendance, even those who were churchgoers. As important as Pilgrim was to the institutional development of black St. Paul, many black churchgoers still preferred to worship in white churches and others still who were “old settlers” or more established in the larger community chose “to worship amongst themselves” for they were “unable to countenance the emotionalism or revivalistic spirit of the Baptist meetings.” Some of them had elected to organize the Episcopal congregation of St. Mark’s in 1867. Since 1863, the small group of black residents whose numbers grew from new arrivals from the South, some of whom may have ventured to Minnesota with Hickman’s Pilgrims and chose to live instead in St. Anthony, organized St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1869 the congregation would take possession of the church building formerly occupied by a white congregation on Sixth Avenue Southeast and Second Street. Twenty years later, St. Paul blacks drawn to the Catholic faith would finally have a separate congregation named after Peter Claver, a sixteenth-century canonized Spanish missionary to Africans. Given this, Pilgrim Baptist was a small segment of St. Paul’s community of black Christians.
It was more likely that Hickman’s message would not be about religion but about freedom, a logical topic for a picnic gathered to celebrate the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies; but even this topic was tricky. It was hotly controversial among the Minnesota clergy, especially in years leading up to the Civil War, to preach politics from the pulpit. Emily Grey, a free black woman who lived in St. Anthony during the years preceding the Civil War, wrote in her memoir that she had selected First Congregational Church in St. Anthony because Pastor Charles C. Seccombe was not reluctant to preach against slavery from the pulpit as most pastors were. During that time, for example, the Reverend John G. Riheldaffer of St. Paul delivered a sermon on “the wickedness of preaching politics.” In reaction to this, fellow Presbyterian Henry M. Nicholls of Stillwater cried out, “Chains and Shackles off from the Pulpit! Let there be one place where Truth goes not on crutches.” As this related to Hickman, a former Missouri slave, to be black, free, and Baptist was to be political. To separate out any of those facts was to deny the totality of his humanity. But Riheldaffer of St. Paul was more the model of Hickman’s patron and it was within this tradition that Hickman worked, removing politics from the religious work of a servant of God.
For the black man and woman, however, freedom, within the historical context, was by definition a matter of military will; equality was very much a matter of political will. Hickman, on that January day in 1869, would have to steer directly into the dilemma. For First Baptist, the line between religion and politics was clear: the tyrant could never be supreme to the will of God; yet where government at last had acted virtuously by fashioning laws that made all men equal, would the same adage hold for men who intended to deny blacks their lawful rights? It was an unprecedented time. No one in the nation, let alone Minnesota, had experienced such a time when a white majority had voted to enfranchise a black minority. For many of the blacks and whites present—an interracial community gathered to celebrate freedom—the issue was inconsequential. It is not clear whether Hickman felt differently. What was plausible is that Hickman was between the white Baptist community whose members were not present, who held a paternal sense of both Hickman and the Pilgrims, a strict ownership of the Baptist faith, and considerable influence in the larger secular community. Different audiences wanted to hear different, more likely conflicting messages from one man, the preacher who had not yet been chosen by his white brethren to be pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church.
In the end his remarks were not reported, but it seemed sufficiently controversial that his name was mentioned at all in the newspaper. Also mentioned in the friendly St. Paul Press was that Hickman spoke at a gathering where the sporting crowd had prolonged an otherwise decorous event with their own more raucous party. Although the Press did not insinuate an association between Hickman and the group, the mere mention of their presence proved awkward. Months earlier, a similar crowd had defiled Pilgrim’s fund-raiser and sent Reverend Norris on his way. By the fall of 1868, Hickman had to be concerned about how his church was being viewed not just by First Baptist, his most dependable patrons, but by the proper members of the black community, who frowned on such lowbrow behavior. Yet, he had attracted the attention of a small group of black men who would call for a meeting to convene in the worship hall of Pilgrim Baptist Society on a night in November. Taking a cue from previous embarrassments, for the festival and dinner to follow the Convention of Colored Citizens, invitations would be distributed to selected whites and blacks. From all accounts the convention went well. Even the irascible Pioneer, which attacked the Republican officials who spoke, commended the organizers and blacks in attendance.
Black Minnesotans as well were impressed with what had transpired and the ways in which black men had comported themselves, including the man who blessed the ceremonies, who perhaps embodied the experiences of many in the audience. Within a scant five years after escaping slavery, Hickman had built himself into a man of note, a leader among black men and black women, a leader among leaders, a black man of God, and one who commanded, by virtue of standing onstage, the respect of the state’s most powerful leaders. It had been four years since, in the name of fifteen others, Hickman requested to “Bee a Branch” of First Baptist, and two years since Pilgrim was formerly organized. Near the end of 1869, months after the convention had met and Hickman made statewide headlines as a Ramsey County juryman, the membership of Pilgrim Baptist Church had grown to twenty-nine.
It was uncertain where they would meet for worship services, however. They no longer could use the Wabasha and Third site, and newspapers no longer printed Pilgrim notices. A visitor to the city wanting a Pilgrim Baptist experience had to rely on word of mouth to find the service. Hickman and his church had come a long way; yet, for all the new community-wide exposure and acceptance by powerful men in both parties, Pilgrim still had no place of worship. Once again, Hickman’s congregation was homeless. Through all the tumult of the last few years, First Baptist, and D. D. Merrill in particular, had been a constant patron who would play a central role in this next phase of Pilgrim’s development.