By Jason Menard
A creative solution to save a piece of our history; a small group of dedicated activists rallying the greater community to act — the survival of the African Methodist Episcopal Church is a feel-good story for the ages, right?
Yes and no.
A feel-good story it may be, but it’s one that masks years of neglect and apathy.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church is a historic treasure for this city — despite its non-descript looks today. Not only is it a fugitive slave chapel steeped in history as the area’s first Black church, for some it represents the birthplace of the liberation movement in the U.S. It was the location of abolitionist John Brown’s speech that sowed the seeds of the Harpers Ferry raid.
It’s also the community anchor of The Hollow — an area of London populated by the poor, and largely Black, community.
The church will be moved or rebuilt in a vacant lot of the Beth Emmanuel Church on Grey St. — the very church that was established in 1869 as Methodist’s replacement. As reported by The London Free Press, the relocated church may be used as a community outreach project or as a museum of sorts.
That’s the way it should be. Because heritage should be more than just a location, it should be a celebration.
According to the City of London Heritage Sites Inventory, there are close to 4,000 buildings with a heritage designation in our city. The London Heritage Council offers pages and pages of sites with historical plaques. How many, like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, have fallen into disrepair? How many are hidden under renovations and aluminum siding? How much of our history is waiting to be rediscovered?
And that brings up the biggest question of all — who is going to pay for it?
The African Methodist Episcopal Church was lucky. It captured a cultural Zeitgeist; it found — or was found by — passionate advocates who are willing to champion its cause; it was brought to the attention through a demolition application; and it found a feasible solution to its location.
But, realistically, how many other buildings are going to have this luck? Not every heritage building can be moved to a new location or shipped up to Fanshawe Pioneer Village; not every story is going to resonate with the community like this one. How many sites are sitting, quietly deteriorating — left to crumble and fade quietly from our memories?
And, the biggest question of all is who’s going to pay for them?
I think we can all agree that preserving our heritage is vital to the growth of the community. Remembering who we are helps to define who we’ll be. And, in the case of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, our involvement with the Underground Railroad is something that we should not only celebrate, but ensure our children and future generations know.
But sourcing the short and long-term funds that these type of buildings require is a greater challenge. It’s one thing to write a letter to the editor, compose a Tweet, or write a blog post. It’s another thing to regularly commit to providing the financial support these types of venues need to survive.
People are quick to demonize the developers, but it’s not their responsibility to purchase and maintain these buildings. They are just doing what the original building’s architects intended — building up and growing the city.
These are the competing priorities. The Church was scheduled for demolition by a business owner looking to expand his business’ physical space. How many of those chastising the business owner are the same who lament the lack of jobs in the city of London?
So how do we integrate our past effectively without undermining our efforts to grow for the future?
Lost in all the recent excitement about the African Methodist Episcopal Church is the fact that it’s always been there. This historic part of London was not discovered — it was lost. We knew of its existence but chose to overlook it.
And while it’s wonderful that we’ve re-embraced the African Methodist Episcopal Church as a vital part of London’s history, we need to learn from our mistakes and evaluate all of our cultural and heritage history. It will mean making some hard decisions and spend our money wisely, but to do any less is a disservice to the people who built the city of London.
The fact that the historic plaque installed in 1986 has been lost to the passage of time seems fitting, because it’s not enough to just designate and annotate our history — we must find a way to celebrate it.