Oldest Black Church Open After Six-Year Restoration

The nation's oldest black church reopens to the public this week after a $9-million restoration fueled in part by federal stimulus funds, and completed in painstaking detail despite the recession. Shannon Mullen tours Boston's African Meeting House with the woman who led the project.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The country's oldest black church marked its 205th anniversary this week. The African Meeting House, in Boston, has been closed for six years for an extensive restoration. But it reopened to the public yesterday. Shannon Mullen stopped by to see the results.

SHANNON MULLEN, BYLINE: The African Meeting House is tucked away on a side street among the brownstones of Boston's upscale Beacon Hill neighborhood. Black artisans built the three-story, brick structure in 1806, and much of it's still sound. But the process of restoring it to the way it looked at the height of the abolition movement, and making it handicapped accessible, cost $9 million.

DIANA PARCON: When people walk in this building - for a program, or just to look around - I want them to have a sense of what it was like in 1855.

MULLEN: Diana Parcon oversaw the construction process for Boston's Museum of African-American History, which owns the meeting house.

PARCON: To sit here and close your eyes and imagine Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, coming down here, talking about abolishing slavery - that's powerful. And now, you can imagine that because this is what it looked like.

MULLEN: The main sanctuary has butter-yellow walls and its original white wainscoting. A simple, gold chandelier hangs from the vaulted ceiling. And rows of bright-yellow pews curve around the pulpit.

BEVERLY MORGAN-WELCH: This room feels like a warm embrace.

MULLEN: Beverly Morgan-Welch is executive director of the African-American History Museum. She says the design of the sanctuary was deliberate.

MORGAN-WELCH: Clearly, you don't do this if you intend for people to be God's frozen people.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORGAN-WELCH: This would be God's warm and loving people. You feel like you're hugged here.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

MULLEN: The balcony above is original and so are the unfinished floorboards, scuffed up by former slaves and famous abolitionists. The meeting house was also used for concerts, speeches, and recruiting meetings for black Civil War regiments. And there was a school for black children on the ground floor.

MORGAN-WELCH: And so they were up to a lot. They had a phrase, and they would often say: The man was all alive in the business. And they were alive in the business of making this nation be the nation it said it wanted to be.

MULLEN: Morgan-Welch says most people think African-Americans were all slaves two centuries ago. And she hopes the newly restored meeting house will help tell visitors the real story of the free black community it was built to serve.

For NPR News, I'm Shannon Mullen in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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