Filed Under Great Falls

Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

At the center of the African American community in Great Falls for more than a century, the Union Bethel AME Church began holding regular services in the first fire station in 1890. The following year African American residents gathered with white supporters to lay the cornerstone of their new building. Built on swampy ground on donated land, the building was hard to maintain, and by 1915 the wooden church had fallen into disrepair. Substantial contributions from its forty-member congregation as well as donations from sympathetic whites—gathered in a door-to-door campaign conducted by the church’s women—allowed the congregation to rebuild. Completed in 1917, the new Gothic style edifice incorporated the cornerstone of the original structure. Like many African American churches, the wood-frame, brick-veneer building served as both a religious and cultural center. Black secular organizations, like the Dunbar Art and Study Club, were rooted in the church, while pastors promoted the church as a source of wholesome entertainment for Great Falls’ black youth—akin to the YMCA for whites. As importantly, the church offered institutional support for its members, many of whom took leading roles in the fight against segregation in Great Falls. With opening access to other churches and institutions, membership in Union Bethel declined, and the church lost its resident minister in the 1970s. By 2000, however, a full-time minister once again served the church, whose interracial congregation draws members from both long-time Great Falls residents and personnel from nearby Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Images

Ladies of the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs gather at Great Falls’ Union Bethel AME Church.
Ladies of the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs gather at Great Falls’ Union Bethel AME Church. The ladies of the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs gather at Great Falls’ Union Bethel AME Church for their annual meeting c. 1956. Marie Dutrieuille Ellis founded the Dunbar Art and Study Club in Great Falls in 1920 as a “fellowship of women whose aim it is to further education, to broaden contact, and work in unity for the community.” Similar clubs existed in Helena, Billings, and Butte, and in 1921, they banded together to establish the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. The federation promoted racial self-help and raising the standards of women and families to counter prejudice. The National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs motto, “lifting as we climb” reflects the commitment to improve the welfare of all black people, regardless of class, region, religion, or educational level. Source: Montana Historical Society Photo Archives, #96-25.20. Date: Circa 1956
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Location

916 5th Avenue South, Great Falls, Montana | Private

Metadata

The Montana National Register Sign Program, “Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” Historic Montana, accessed April 15, 2024, https://historicmt.org/items/show/217.