1772 Historic Emanuel AME
AboutFounded in 1772, three years before the American Revolution as the African Methodist Society, Emanuel AME is the oldest African-American church in the area. The congregation shared several locations with the (White) Methodist Society before becoming the sole occupants of the African Church, formerly known as Glasgow Street Church. The church was a station on the Underground Railroad, so when laws sparked by the Nat Turner Rebellion required a white overseer, stationmaster, George Bain, was the logical choice as its pastor.
Bain and his wife, Eliza also operated a secret school for black children in the building. But, although the school was never discovered and no runaways were ever found in the building, in 1856, the African Church was burned to the ground by what Pastor Bain called "wicked hands". Bain then purchased the current location on the corner of North and Green Streets and deeded it to the church. The majority of the funds for that purchase were donated by enslaved and free blacks, with some of the money raised by the Norfolk and Portsmouth Methodist Societies. Pastor Bain donated the bricks for the new building from his brickyard.
A large stand of oaks on the property was harvested and used where needed, as the congregation set about with their own hands building the perfect station on the Underground Railroad! The building was dedicated in 1857, and during a tour of what is now Emanuel AME, you can view a secret hiding place skillfully concealed behind a wall and an attic hiding place concealed above the ceiling. Beautiful stained glass windows reach nearly to the peak of the roof on the outside, but only to that ceiling on the inside. The top part of the window is visible in the attic and served as a lookout facing the river. Finally, the opening to a ditch-like tunnel that led freedom-seekers to the water's edge, where friendly sea captains like Alfred Fountain piloted them to Philadelphia and their freedom. As with the African Church, no runaway was ever found at North Street Church.
Many other physical features have stories to tell. In 1871, the church joined the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, and the name was changed to Emanuel AME which means "God with Us".
Emanuel's congregation not only protected freedom-seekers. It produced freedom-fighters, including Revolutionary War Hero William "Billy" Flora, outspoken newspaper columnist Jeffrey Thomas Wilson, educators Ida Barbour and Israel Charles Norcom, and civil rights activist Dr. James W. Holley III, who remains Portsmouth's longest serving mayor. If you would like to tour Emanuel AME, please call the church secretary at 757-393-2259 to schedule an appointment. For an hour-long, interpreter-led African American history walking tour of Portsmouth ending with an interior tour of Emanuel, please call History Alive at 757-705-8130.