Churches have long been an important part of many Black communities. In addition to serving people’s spiritual needs, some churches have provided social welfare services, started schools and orphanages, or simply served as community centers and meeting places.
St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church started in 1910 as a center for Black Episcopalians to worship at St. John’s parish. Under the leadership of Rev. D.R. Wallace, the fledgling church purchased the lot and a small cottage at 27th and West, and saved for a building. In 1920, the cornerstone was laid for the building you see now. The church continued to grow over the years under different leaders.
In 1967, Rev. Earl A. Neil became rector of the parish. Under his leadership, St. Augustine’s refocused on community involvement. Rev. Neil also continued his work for social justice, but in ways that not all members were initially in support of. He reached out to the Black Panther Party (BPP) and offered the church as a meeting place. The BPP had difficulty meeting because of police and government harassment; FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called them the “greatest threat to internal security of the country.”
Things came to a head on April 3, 1968. A large number of heavily armed police showed up, citing reports of a “drunken man waving a gun about.” Rev. Neil responded that the only guns he had seen about were those of the police, and refused them entrance. Tensions rose, but eventually Rev. Neil convinced a police captain to disperse the officers.
The next day, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and a few days after that, BPP member Lil’ Bobby Hutton was gunned down by police while he was unarmed and stripped to his underwear. Rev. Neil presided over a memorial service for both men. The memorial service was a turning point.
“Members of the congregation weren’t just seen as handkerchief heads and Uncle Toms, as they were often called in those days. And those same members saw for the first time that a lot of the Panthers were just teenagers who were reacting to the needs of their community. We broke down a lot of barriers.”
A few years later, Rev. Neil presided over a memorial for BPP Field Marshal George Jackson. Over 1,200 people gathered to pay their respects, and most followed the service listening over loudspeakers outside the church.
But the church was more than a meeting house to the BPP. In 1969, parishioner Ruth Beckford and Rev. Neil organized the first BPP Free Breakfast for School Children program. Generally remembered as a dancer and teacher, Ruth Beckford was also active in her church and in social justice.
“The school principal came down and told us how different the children were. They weren’t falling asleep in class, they weren’t crying with stomach cramps.”Ruth Beckford
Hoover and the FBI saw this as an even greater threat.
The BPP quickly expanded the program to other chapters, and by the end of the year, 20,000 children in 19 cities were being fed breakfast before school. They also added other programs like free groceries, health clinics, and schools.
St. Augustine’s later merged with Trinity Episcopal Church. Today the combined congregation meets at the red church building at Telegraph Avenue and 29th St. with the St. Augustine’s name.