St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopalian

St. Mark’s AME Church in 1975, photographer unknown [Image: Minnesota Historical Society]

530 N. 5th Ave E. | Architect: P. M. Olsen | Built 1913 | Extant

Tucked within the Central Hillside along at the southeast corner of Fifth Street and Fifth Avenue East stands a small brick church whose modest design belays the fact that it is one of the city’s most culturally significant structures: the first, and only, local landmark built by and for African Americans. According to an April 1891 letter in the Duluth News Tribune written by church trustees, St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal congregation formed in 1889. A letter published the previous January was signed by “Reverend S. B. Jones, Pastor, St. Mark’s AME Church,” likely the congregation’s first pastor. Reverend Richmond Taylor took over the pulpit in September 1890. Earlier that year St. Mark’s congregants formed what would become Doric Lodge No. 4
of the Grand Lodge of Negro Masons of Minnesota. At the time, as today, few African Americans lived in Duluth—just 220 out of 33,000 residents or less than one percent. Most worked as porters, barbers, and waiters and lived above downtown in the city’s Central Hillside. Both the lodge and the church provided a larger sense of community for one of the city’s smallest groups.

In 1891 the congregation began holding services in a building at 331 East Fourth East. By 1898 official membership was just eleven people, but many more attended Sunday services and its Sunday School. In 1900 they built a stone basement at 530 North Fifth Avenue East and put a roof over it. Once funds were raised, the basement would become the foundation for a church. By 1909 they hired architect Peter Olsen, but construction didn’t begin until 1913. By then the congregation boasted 50 members, with about 250 attending services lead by Reverend Timothy Tyler. Tyler had been transferred from Galesburg, Illinois, where he had successfully raised funds to build Allen’s Chapel, which the Duluth News Tribune called “one of the finest churches among the colored denominations of the United States.”

The Duluth church was more modest. A mix of Gothic and Tudor Revival styles, the one-story building is faced with red brick and features a square, two-story crenelated bell tower that also serves as the building’s main entrance. Geometric stained-glass windows—locally made and donated by Doric Lodge No. 4—are framed in untrimmed Tutor arches. Inside, a domed ceiling covers the sanctuary, which can seat 350 worshippers. The doorway used when the building was simply a basement with a roof is still in place.

In the wake of Duluth’s 1920 lynchings of three innocent African-American men, St. Mark’s Reverend William Majors worked to indict members of the mob. A year later, W. E. B. Dubois spoke at St. Mark’s before Duluth’s fledgling chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Ethel Ray Nance, daughter of Duluth NAACP chapter founder W. H. Ray, gave an introductory talk. She later worked for Dubois and became a civil rights leader in her own right. When asked about that 1921 talk years later, she recalled that the church overflowed with people, 75 percent of them white.

St. Mark’s official congregation has since remained small, with weekly attendance of just thirty worshippers recorded in 2018. In 2021, Duluth’s 2,300 African Americans represented 2.6 percent of the population.