The man with whom an African-American South Carolina college and a Philadelphia school is named after, as well as a city housing complex and a stamp that was issued in his honor — will now have a statue erected at the church he founded.
A bronze effigy of the Bishop Richard Allen will be unveiled at 3 p.m. Sunday at the deeply-rooted Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 419 S. 6th St., during the AME’s General Conference celebrating 200 years. The Bicentennial Torch Run will begin in Dover, Del., where Allen spent most of his childhood, and will end in the courtyard of the church at the northeast corner of Sixth and Lombard streets, where parishioners will gather to see the statue.
“The members of Mother Bethel are excited to receive the statue,” the Rev. Mark Tyler, the pastor of Mother Bethel said by phone Monday just as the statue was arriving at the church. “The AMEs from around the world are going to be here next week. Even our neighbors in Society Hill are as excited as we are. It’s an amazing accomplishment.”
Allen, who was born in Philadelphia in 1760 founded the Free African Society in 1787 alongside Absalom Jones, who founded the African Episcopal Church. As a Methodist attending St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, Allen grew tired of having to worship in the upstairs of the church, segregated from white members. Out of this, Allen formed the AME Church in 1816 and would become the first African-American elected bishop in the United States.
The statue of the religious leader cost almost $1 million dollars, is seven-feet tall and sits on a marble slab about three to four feet high off the ground. The human part of it is bronze and the bass is granite.
Bishop Gregory G.M. Ingram, host presiding prelate and leader of the the First Episcopal District of the AME Church, said the decision to erect the statue in front of Mother Bethel was because of the historical significance to the denomination.
“It’s the oldest piece of property owned by Blacks in this country,” Ingram said. “This is private property and we didn’t have to ask the city to do this.”
When yellow fever hit the city in 1793, it was Allen, Ingram said, whom is attributed to nursing the sick and burying the dead.
“He provided ongoing sustainability for the city,” Ingram said. “You’re talking about more than a citizen of color, you’re talking about a citizen who put their life on the line for others.”
Ingram said the church initially tried to get an Allen sculpture back in 1946. At that time the cost was estimated at $180,000 and it was to be installed in Fairmount Park.
“When Bishop Ingram arrived four years ago, he brought it to our attention that he had a desire to build a statue of Richard Allen,” Tyler said. “The last serious attempt was in the 1940s, and it involved the AME church and the city of Philadelphia. It was to be built in Fairmount Park, an artist was selected and artist renderings were submitted, but nothing every came of it. Now we’re making this dream a reality.”
Ingram commissioned artist and AME member Fern Cunningham-Terry a year ago to make the piece. She molded the artwork by using clay.
“Bishop Ingram was talking about the desire for a sculpture and the pastor that had been working at our church at the time suggested me,” Cunningham-Terry, a member of Grant AME Church in Boston said. “I have about seven sculptures that are outdoors in Boston, so they wanted someone that was Black and it was nice to make that connection.”
Cunningham-Terry, a sculpture by trade, also created the Harriet Tubman Memorial which depicts the abolitionist and activist aiding slaves to safety and was debuted in 1999 in Boston.
The retired art teacher plans on making the trip from the Boston area to Philadelphia with her church via bus on Sunday for the unveiling ceremony.
“When you talk about Philadelphia, you can’t talk about it without talking about the AME Church; everything started with the history of the Black church right here in Philadelphia,” Ingram said. “The church (Free African Society) is 11 years younger than the country itself.”
Allen, who died in 1831, and his wife Sarah are buried on Mother Bethel grounds.