Who Owns the Old Ebenezer AME Church in Philadelphia?

 RAYMOND HOLMAN JR. Tia Manon stands in front of what used to be Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Tia Manon stands in front of what used to be Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Tia Manon trudged through the swampy cemetery of the old Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, looking for two names belonging to one man.

Perry Ringgold was a slave who escaped the South on the Underground Railroad. James Williams was the free man he became after he was harbored by a Quaker family in Exton.

According to family lore, this relative of Manon’s helped found the East Whiteland church in 1832, but none of the stone markers bore a trace of him, by either name. She did come across one name she recognized, a Reason – William Reason. Could he have been an ancestor of her late husband, George Reason?

With that visit nearly a decade ago, Manon began researching the history of the one-room fieldstone church, abandoned in the early 1900s after serving a community of former slaves and indentured servants. Yet, as its past emerged with her work, the structure was vanishing. The roof fell in, the walls deteriorated. A phalanx of weeds and poison ivy crept over it, and obscured 80-some graves.

“It makes you feel very, very sad,” said Manon, 47, of Paoli, a student at Immaculata University.

She is among a group of neighbors and history buffs who want to clean up and preserve the two-acre tract on Bacton Hill Road. Officials of the Chester County township said that they will coordinate the effort, but that they first need permission from the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which they believe owns the property.

But it’s not that simple.

Years ago, Manon says, a national A.M.E. official told her the denomination had no record of Ebenezer – also called Abenezer in old newspaper articles. But last week, the Rev. Dr. Mark Kelly Tyler, senior pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia, said a record may indeed exist. The challenge will be finding it.

“We don’t know enough about the property,” he said. “Let’s go through all the facts and find out if the church was truly abandoned, or sold to someone else who left it.”

The A.M.E. Church has gone to court over questions of ownership of worship sites – a determination that can be a tangled matter requiring extensive research, said the Rev. Dr. Teresa L. Fry Brown, executive director of the national denomination’s department of research and scholarship.

Should the A.M.E. Church prove to be the owner, Tyler said, “we will want to have some involvement – with the leadership of our bishop – in deciding how to memorialize it.”

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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer | Kristin E. Holmes