On this day in 1787, Richard Allen and a number of other African American Methodists arrived at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to attend Sunday services. They were directed toward a newly built seating gallery, and mistakenly sat in its "white" section. During a prayer, white ushers pulled the black worshippers to their feet and demanded that they sit in the "proper" section. Humiliated, Allen--a former slave from Delaware who had joined the Wesleyan movement because of its work against slavery and who eventually became a licensed Methodist preacher--and several others left the church at the prayer's end. "They were no more plagued with us in the church," he later said dryly.
Similar indignities were suffered by African American Christians all across both the North and the South. There were incidents where children were refused baptism because white pastors refused to take the infants into their arms. Likewise free black parishioners were often forced to wait until all the whites had been served the Lord's Supper before they were admitted to the table. There were even conflicts over access to cemeteries.
In response to such discrimination, African American Methodists in Baltimore and Philadelphia began holding separate prayer meetings as early as 1786, two years after Methodism had made its way to American shores. Allen tried to buy a separate building for such meetings, but abandoned his plan in the face of white hostility. Recognizing the importance of black self-reliance, Allen, Absalom Jones, and others had formed the Free African Society--a benevolent organization whose commitment to abolition and the aiding of blacks in times of need became a model for other societies nationwide. But they were still dependent on dominant Methodist institutions.
By 1794 Philadelphia's black Methodists had raised enough money to build their own church, which a majority of the congregation voted to align with the Episcopalians rather than the Methodists. They named it the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Allen, however, believed that "no religious sect or denomination would suit the capacity of the colored people as well as the Methodists, for the plain and simple gospel suits best for any people." Thus, he purchased a blacksmith shop with his own money and converted it into a storefront church. Methodist Bishop Frances Asbury named it the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
By 1816 black Methodists, still facing persistent discrimination, had come to believe that separate churches were not enough. Allen and a number of other prominent African American pastors decided to organize under the name the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Afterward, they successfully sued for independence before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Not surprisingly, Richard Allen became the first AME bishop.