Bethel AME – 150 Years Of Keeping The Faith In Iowa City.

This artistic depiction of John Gilbert’s 1838 trading post features an African-American man – Mogawk – and a Native-American woman – Jennie – who lived and worked here.

As best we know, the first African-American in Johnson County was a man named Mogawk. Iowa City historian, Henry Felkner indicates in his notes from Johnson County’s first business meeting that Mogawk was one of seven residents who gathered at John Gilbert’s trading post in January 1838 with the goal of bringing a post office, roads, and other developments to Napoleon – the first “white” settlement in Johnson County.

According to historical records, Mogawk was a well-respected employee of William & Sumner Phelps (above) – fur traders who were the first to develop long-term partnerships with the Meskwaki people living, at the time, in and around Johnson County. A Phelps family diary states that Mogawk – described as a very tall, muscular Black man – rescued William Phelps from a deadly gunpowder explosion while working at the Phelp’s trading post on the Des Moines River. Apparently, Mogawk decided to move north to Johnson County, working with Sumner Phelps’ successor – John Gilbert – when Gilbert arrived here around 1835.

There are no records of how long Mogawk stayed here, nor do we know the names of those African-Americans who made Johnson County their home once Iowa City was settled in 1839. We do know with great certainty, however, that many Johnson County residents and others throughout the surrounding area were actively involved with the Underground Railroad – helping blacks escape the oppression of slavery in the south. It’s very likely that Mogawk was just one example of an enslaved African-American who found freedom here in Iowa via the Underground Railroad that began operating in the 1830’s. Read more here.

Once the Civil War ended (1865), the doors opened wide for now-freed Blacks to find their way north. According to city records, one of the first African-Americans to settle here in Iowa City following the war was Martha Harrison, and her daughter Sarah Harrison who moved here from Missouri – living near the Iowa River on Block 98. Martha was born in Virginia (early 1830’s) and sometime in her youth, she moved to Missouri where Sarah was born in 1853. Because neither can be located in the 1860 national census, they were most likely former slaves who gained their freedom either during or shortly after the Civil War. As a widow, Martha probably struggled to make a living, so the Harrison’s began to accept boarders to earn extra income. In the 1870 national census, they listed two African-American men who worked as barbers – George Mayweather and Mr. Watterford – as members of their household.

Read more about the Iowa City residents of Block 96-99 here.

On this 1868 map of Iowa City we’ve marked the location of the property Zion AME purchased.

As this small African-American population gathered in Iowa City – it was decided, early on – that the community needed a church in which to worship God. Sadly, at the time, Blacks were not allowed to own land in the city, so in 1868, $50 was raised – just enough money to buy a small parcel of land located just outside the city limits – in the far southeast corner of the city – near today’s intersection of Governor and Court Streets (see map above). On Wednesday, April 1, 1868, the cornerstone for the new church was laid.

Venise Berry, an associate professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Iowa, says this about the humble beginnings of her home church – One of the things to think about is the fact that there were enough freed slaves in Iowa City in 1868 to build this church … to me that’s just fascinating.

By 1870, a small, single-room sanctuary had been built at what is today 411 S. Governor Street. That same year, the U.S. Census recorded 89 Black residents in all of Johnson County, 37 of whom had been born in slave-holding states, and all three of the Zion AME church trustees listed on the original deed were born the South: James Howard in Virginia, Henry Boon in North Carolina and Boston Clay in Alabama.

Above is a 1900 map of Iowa City – with the AME Church on Governor Street notated on the map.

The first African Methodist Episcopal Church, now known as “Mother Bethel,” was founded in Philadelphia in 1794, when Black members of that city’s St. George’s Methodist Church quit its congregation due to the church’s racist policies. It would take another 21 years and two lawsuits for the AME church to establish its right to be its own denomination, independent of the traditional Methodist church.

In 1816, one of the organizers of the new church, Richard Allen, an ex-slave who bought his own freedom and went on to become a successful businessman, organized a meeting for Black Methodists throughout the free states on the Atlantic seaboard to introduce them to the AME church. Since then, the church has grown to more than 7,000 congregations with more than 3 million members.

Despite its small physical size (see pic below), this little AME church on Governor Street has played a large role in the greater Iowa City community over its storied 150-year history. In 1906, the congregation decided to rename the church – calling it Bethel – which means “the House of God.”

Until 2010, this one-room building – with a maximum capacity of 50 persons – was all there was to Bethel AME. Services could be “cozy,” as Reverend Orlando Dial puts it–a worship experience not for the claustrophobic.

The first renovation of this small “House of God” followed a mysterious fire in 1923. The next year – 1924 – the church suffered yet another fire – in fact, it caught fire three times in one night – under suspicious circumstances – all occurring four days before a public attempt to form an Iowa City chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Coincidence? We think not.

Interestingly, every time any renovations have been done over the years, the church has uncovered little pieces of history – including evidence the building was built on land that once housed an Underground Railroad site. In 1926, the church’s first basement – dirt covered with a wood floor – was put in, and in 1988, poured concrete replaced the buckled wood floor. It was during this basement work when an old bookshelf was moved – revealing a sheaf of yellowed notebook paper. “It was hand-written and the ink was brown and the paper dulled,” says Dianna Penny – church historian. “I was almost afraid to breathe on it for fear it might disintegrate. So I got to the nearest computer – typing out what has become the only written history of the church prior to the 1920’s!”

Read more about Rev. Fred L. Penny here.

Rev. Fred L. Penny was Bethel’s pastor from 1958 until his death in 1994. Accompanied by his wife and children, Penny came to Iowa in 1957 from southern Illinois, where he had served as the pastor of two small-town AME churches. His first Iowa assignment was in Muscatine, the city where Iowa’s first AME church was established in the 1840’s, and a stop on the Underground Railroad.

“We were in Muscatine for a year,” Dianna Penny, the eldest of the six Penny children, recalled. “Then my father attended the annual AME conference in 1958 and the bishop called out, ‘Who will take Iowa City?’ My dad raised his hand.” Read more here.

In taking care of bodies as well as souls, Rev. Penny followed the well-established tradition of his AME denomination, which has always stressed providing social support, as well as spiritual support, for the communities it serves. Bethel has often been described, using the words of an old spiritual, as “a rock in a weary land.”

Read about the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Iowa City.

In 2000, the church received recognition on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2005, church leaders decided it was finally time for Bethel to expand.

“It was five years of struggle,” Venise Berry recalled. Berry, who became a regular member of Bethel’s congregation after returning to Iowa City in the 1990’s to teach at the University, was co-chair of the fundraising committee for the expansion. The church had to navigate a maze of city building and land use regulations, and it also had to carefully follow strict regulations due to Bethel’s designation as a national historic site. Most importantly, it had to find the money!

“We were turned down for a loan by the first four banks we applied to,” Berry said. “The banks said ‘You don’t have enough people. We recognize your vision, but we don’t see how you are going to make it work.’ Finally, MidWestOne, bless their heart, said ‘We’re going to stand behind you, we’re going to support you. So, we started building.”

Watch the Bethel AME Groundbreaking Highlight Video.

In truth, the entire project – from initiation to completion – took a total of ten years to be accomplished. “August 1, 2015,” Dianna Penny’s face lit up as she recalled the date of the first service in the new sanctuary. “I felt like we had arrived, like my father’s long-term dream had been fulfilled.” The new sanctuary of 4,000 square feet has room for 150 people, which is three times the capacity of the original building.

Pastor Kimberly Abram-Bryant, who arrived in 2015, said, ‘It’s a blessing to be part of this rich history, not only here in Iowa City but across the country. The Bethel AME Church is very rooted in the history of the African-American community, but it also is an inclusive church. Before coming here in 2015, I knew Bethel had a phenomenal reputation in Iowa City for generosity, for helping people in need.” She said she’s proud the church has been welcoming to all, and especially that it can be a haven for black students at the University who arrive to a town and campus that are overwhelmingly white.

“Having a meal like grandma’s cooking and having the conversations we can have is important,” Abram-Bryant said. ‘This church has been a place for people to feel comfortable and to express themselves … I call this church a mega church, not because of its size, but because of its potential and because of what has already happened here.”

In 2018 – the good people of Bethel AME celebrated their 150th birthday in Iowa City!

Even though Bethel is still a small congregation, Dianna Penny, who has watched it grow from just one parishioner (1958) into its current size, isn’t worried about Bethel’s future.

“We’ve never let our small size deter us from doing big things,” she said. Amen, dear sister…Amen.

Click here to access our list of stories of those who have made a difference in this call for Unity Through Diversity…

Click here to access our Rich Stories of Diversity Timeline…

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Be It Resolved, Henry Felkner, History of Johnson County, Iowa, Containing a History of the County, and Its Townships, Cities and Villages from 1836 to 1882, 1883, pp 583-584

African Methodist Episcopal Church, Wikipedia

Bethel AME Church, website

Bethel AME Church marks 150th anniversary in Iowa City, Alison Gowans, Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 15, 2018

Facing Tribulations – Dianna Penny, soul of Bethel A. M. E., David Henderson, University of Iowa, February 8, 2014

IC’s Bethel church remains strong, Girindra Selleck, The Daily Iowan, June 29, 2015

Keeping the faith: Iowa City’s Bethel AME Church celebrates 150 years, Paul Brennon, Little Village Magazine, May 2, 2018

National Register of Historic Places, Bethel AME Church, NPGallery-NPS

Click here to go on to the next section…

Click here for a complete INDEX of Our Iowa Heritage stories…