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Englewood's Oldest Church Turns 130

 The church will celebrate with the community this weekend.
The church will celebrate with the community this weekend.
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DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson

ENGLEWOOD — Ethel Payne, the "first lady of the black press," and internationally acclaimed sculptor Richard Hunt are just two in a long line of notable members of Englewood’s oldest black church.

The church, Greater St. John African Methodist Episcopal,  at 6201 S. Throop, will celebrate 130 years with an anniversary luncheon from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Nikos Banquet Hall in suburban Bridgeview.

The event is open to all. Tickets are $45 and can be purchased through Eventbrite. There will be a special Sunday worship service at the church from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. where community leaders, aldermen and other notables are invited.

The church plans to celebrate the anniversary all year with small monthly events.

The Rev. Kevin Andre Brooks, who pastors the church, said that Greater St. John has played a significant role in Englewood, especially in promoting the black middle class.

“The church is historically the first black church built in Englewood and has an amazing history,” he said. “It was pivotal in the economic, political and social development of the community."

He added, "Some of the first black millionaires came out of the church, as well as notable artists and politicians got their start here.”

The A.M.E. denomination was founded by Richard Allen in 1787, in protest against segregated worship in Philadelphia. The denomination became the first black organized independent religious body in the United States in 1816.

Greater St. John was founded in 1887, becoming a centralized place of worship for former African slaves and black migrants escaping the rural South. Members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South organized the Englewood church.

Founding memebers met in a storefront at 63rd and Yale Avenue from 1887 to 1892  and moved around to different buildings in the area over the next three decades. A church finally was built — where it stands today — at 62nd and South Throop Street in 1923.

Gwen Roberts (left) is shown with member Rashanah Baldwin, who serves as a stewardess for the church. Roberts joined when she was 8. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]

Black journalist Payne was once a member of the Englewood church.  She wasn't afraid to ask questions and helped put the spotlight on the struggles of black people.

Payne, who died in 1991 at the age of 79, started her journalism career late in her life. She was 40 when she began writing for the historic Chicago Defender weekly newspaper in the early 1950s. While at the Defender, the West Englewood native reported on the civil rights movement, covering significant events such as the Montgomery bus boycott and the 1963 March on Washington.

Payne also reported from the White House for several years, where she covered press conferences of presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan.

Gwen Roberts, who volunteers at the church, joined when she was 8. The 79-year-old Englewood native and resident shared early memories of Payne.

“She would go to China, and she would come back home, and she would have the biggest thing down in the basement here,” Roberts said. “Everybody would say, ‘You coming [to church]? Ms. Ethel Payne will be there and she has all this stuff she’s going to put on display.’”

“You’d go down to the basement, and she’d have three of those big wooden tables, and she would just have them full of porcelain dolls from China, and those kimonos were silk, and she would have a table with silk scarves and jewelry. It was just beautiful. She loved to talk.”

Internationally acclaimed sculptor Richard Hunt donated this cross to the church in the late 1970s. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]

Payne wasn’t the only influential name to come out of the church. Over the years, 81-year-old Englewood native Richard Hunt has received accolades and recognition for his work.

The first African-American sculptor to have a major solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Hunt's works are in the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery and National Museum of American Art in Washington, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In 1968 he was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as one of the first artists to serve on the National Council on the Arts, the governing board of the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2009, Hunt was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Sculpture Center.

He donated one of his famous crosses to Greater St. John for its sanctuary in the late 1970s.

Hunt attended Greater St. John as a boy. He split his time between two churches, he said, because his father was Methodist and his mother Baptist.

The church at the time reflected the community, Hunt said.

“Members of the church were active, they had businesses; others worked meaningful, decent jobs,” he said. “There were opportunities for people to have grocery stores, barbershops, pharmacies and more.”

His father owned a barbershop on 63rd Street between May and Racine, he said.

“[Englewood] was a wonderful neighborhood to grow up in,” he said, mentioning the 63rd and Halsted Street business district.

“At the time it was the largest commercial shopping area outside of Downtown,” he said.

Greater Englewood CDC/Glen Fulton

Gwen Roberts, who grew up having Hunt’s mother style her hair, said that blacks rarely had to leave Englewood. They had plenty of stores and recreational activities right in their community. There was always something to do for everyone, she said.

When she wasn’t in school at Lindblom or practicing the flute for band, she would visit Ogden Park, despite whites not wanting black people there, she said. She would have picnics or read books in the grass. There were plenty of boutiques and stores to visit.

“You could do all your shopping on 63rd,” she said. “The only time we went Downtown was to go to Marshall Field's during Christmastime or if Carson’s was having a big sale, but you did everything out here.”

One of her favorite places to frequent growing up was the Southtown Theater on 63rd Street, west of South Wallace Avenue.

According to Cinematreasures.org, the theater was “the last massive picture palace to be built in Chicago.”

It opened in 1931. There were more than 2,000 floor seats and another 1,000 in the balcony.  

“The most incredible feature was the Flamingo pool and fountain in the grand lobby which had a waterfall and live fish,” according to the website. It closed in 1958.

“The theaters Downtown, it put them to shame,” Roberts said. “The Southtown Theater was built like a castle.”

Hunt said he’s happy to see efforts being made to revitalize the neighborhood and new businesses like Whole Foods are a good addition to Englewood.

Brooks said back in the day Englewood was an affluent black community, one of the first in the nation.  He said he wants to keep the legacy and history alive while connecting the community with the elders of the church.

“A lot of our solutions in our community lie within their wisdom, so that's the goal of the anniversary, to raise awareness that our future is brighter than our past, and kind of bridging the gap.”