African American Churches in Jeffersonville, Indiana
Segregated Congregations Become Centers of Community
Before you, stands one of Clark County’s historic African American churches, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal. In the 19th Century, numerous African American churches were established to serve the spiritual needs of people fleeing the South in search of greater freedoms and economic security. Prior to the United States Civil War, African Americans had little influence in most denominations, but often attended the same churches as their White neighbors. After the Civil War, more denominations practiced segregation nationwide, with Black churches led by Black ministers. According to Carl E. Kramer's work This Place We Call Home: A History of Clark County, Indiana, local White churches refused African American potential members who arrived in Jeffersonville after the Civil War.
Kramer notes that, in response, many churches emerged to meet the spiritual needs of African Americans migrating to Clark County. Some churches met in temporary locations before they completed permanent houses of worship.
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church moved into a permanent building near Wall Street in Jeffersonville some time around 1880. Only shortly after the building's construction, the Ohio River Flood of 1883 inundated Jeffersonville, including the location of the church. Jeffersonville found itself under water again during the Great Flood of 1937. Repeated flooding destroyed many of Jeffersonville’s historical records, including the records of many African American churches. According to the church website, the original members of the church met in a log cabin, and early church meetings were conducted by a circuit rider. Like Bethel, most other Jeffersonville churches experienced record loss during the major Ohio River floods.
Another African Methodist Episcopal church emerged after the Civil War, Wesley Chapel. Wesley Chapel congregants worshipped in a building near Claysburg, Kramer reports.
Kramer notes that Reverend Phillip Simcoe and other congregants organized the First Colored Baptist Church of Jeffersonville in 1861, well before the end of the Civil War. Jeffersonville featured three African American Baptist churches at the dawn of the 20th Century: Illinois Avenue (also called Second Baptist), Indiana Avenue, and Rose Hill, according to Kramer. In 1913, the three combined to form First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, with an early membership of 400. Although it moved from Illinois Avenue to Spring Street, First Trinity Missionary Baptist church exists in Jeffersonville to this day.