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Back You are here: Home History History News Local History Molly Crusen Bishop: The importance of Ward Chapel A.M.E. to Peoria history

Molly Crusen Bishop: The importance of Ward Chapel A.M.E. to Peoria history

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There is a church called Ward Chapel A.M.E. at 511 Richard Allen Drive in Peoria, Illinois. It is there African Americans in Peoria first began to get an education.

Below is some history about this remarkable church and the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church. After all, there is a street named after him.

The Peoria church itself was named for Rev. Phillip Ward in 1846. The street it is located on is named after Bishop Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopalian church.

Richard Allen was born into slavery in Delaware in 1760, on the plantation of Benjamin Chew. He and his family were later sold to Stokeley Sturgis, who also owned a plantation in Delaware. Stokeley had financial issues and sold half of Richard’s family, leaving Richard and one brother and one sister. He was allowed to attend services of the Methodist Society, and taught himself to read and write.

Rev. Freeborn Garrettson was a Methodist minister who freed his own slaves in 1775 and began preaching that the practice of owning slaves was sinful and against God. Garrettson convinced Sturgis of this and Sturgis allowed his slaves to purchase their freedom. Richard Allen earned his freedom in 1780.

In 1786 he was a preacher at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Even though he was required to hold separate services early in the morning, his sermons began drawing large and larger crowds.

In 1787 he and a preacher named Absalom Jones formed the FAS, Free African Society. This society was formed to help fugitive slaves and to help lift up the lives of the black community. It also was driven to educate African Americans.

Because there was not complete support or freedom from the predominantly white St. George church, Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1794. He felt forced to do this in order to give African Americans a place to worship without bounds of any kind. Richard and his wife Sara also operated a station on the Underground Railroad from 1797 until his death in 1831.

Bishop Richard Allen was a religious leader, educator, and lived his life to help create an African American community.

I can understand why Peoria has named a street after this American hero. It makes sense that Ward Chapel A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) Church is now a part of a denomination with more than 3 million members worldwide.

Ward Chapel A.M.E. Church’s part of Peoria’s history is incredible. It was home to the first school for Peoria’s African American children, beginning in the 1850s. The classes were sporadic and not funded well in the early years. The first teacher was Miss Rebecca Elliot, from Ohio, who operated her own school until 1866, when African American children were allowed to start attending Peoria public schools.

Ward Chapel has had several locations throughout its history. It originally was on Chestnut Street when Rev. Ward and a congregation of 10 came over from Bloomington to start the church. It later was at Fifth and Monson Streets.

It has been at its present location on Richard Allen Drive since 1956, built from the ground up. Famous African Americans such as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington have spoken at Ward Chapel.

The current head of Ward Chapel A.M.E. Church is the dynamic Rev. Elaine Gordon. She has fostered a wonderful theme, which is “Creating A Community Complete In Christ.” She does a lot of works in the Peoria community and was one of 25 Outstanding Women of Peoria 2012.

Rev. Gordon is a member of the NAACP, Tri-County Urban League, coordinator of the Illinois Conference of Women in Ministry, and many other impressive groups and accomplishments. With a Bachelor of Science degree in social services administration and a Master of Arts degree in Urban Ministry from Martin University, she is continuing the 166 year tradition of Ward Chapel to educate and build the lives of African Americans and all citizens in Peoria.

Richard Allen Drive and Ward Chapel A.M.E. are along the route of the inaugural Whiskey Baron Run, scheduled for Sat. Aug. 6 at 7 a.m.


About the Author
Molly is a life-long Peorian and an author, speaker, and storyteller. She is married to Doug Bishop and has five children and one grandchild. Molly loves history and Peoria and loves to share her passions with anyone she can get to listen to her. She loves to research, interview, and write or speak about history. The youngest and ninth child of Don and Joani Crusen, she grew up on the West Bluff in the house her great grandparents built in the 1880s. She writes a historical column in Woman’s View magazine, and will be writing a column called The Peorian Perspective in The Peorian.