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Church had roots in city's black community

| Sunday, March 14, 2004, 12:00 p.m.

The Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Hill District has been a cornerstone of Pittsburgh's black community since shortly after the Civil War.

Ebenezer Baptist, the first black Baptist congregation in Western Pennsylvania to own a church building, has been a driving force in the nation's civil right's movement.

"It's hard for me to think of a church more significant in the African-American community," said Arthur Ziegler Jr., president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

Ebenezer Baptist dates to 1875 when the congregation was formed. The congregation bought a church from the Presbyterians in 1906, and moved about 1930 to the current site at 2001 Wylie Ave.

Its role in the civil rights movement was highlighted by its hosting of the National Urban League's annual conference in 1932. Later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his first visit.

It was the site of other firsts, too. In 1923, it started using a bus, called the gospel wagon, to drive church members with physical limitations to services -- the first black church to do so in the nation, according to Manford Sales, the church's senior deacon.

Sales says it also was the first black church to install an elevator. That came in 1965.

"Our church is important," he said. "We've only had 10 ministers there."

The church survived a fire in January 1976 that caused $300,000 in damage to the building, just three years after the Rev. Dr. J. Van Alfred Winsett, the current pastor, arrived at Ebenezer Baptist.

In one way or another, the church has touched many lives.

"My dad went to Ebenezer Baptist and used to sing in the choir over there," said Tim Stevens, the president of the NAACP Pittsburgh Branch. "When I saw the fire (Saturday) morning, the first thing I thought of was my dad."

Today, the church operates an 11-story senior high-rise, a $5.4 million building with 101 apartments. It also operates its own personal care home and a million dollar Christian life center.

The church is the main meeting spot for numerous community programs, including Head Start, Alcoholics Anonymous, and all scouting groups.

It has a choir, ministers to prisoners, helps students obtain scholarships and learn with the help of mentors. Each year, it reaches out to youngsters through an 11-week summer academy.

"That church was used by so many people," said Winsett, the church's senior pastor.

Winsett is heard weekly on Christian radio stations WGBN, Pittsburgh, and WDIG in Steubenville, Ohio. A new sound and video system was installed recently in the church to display scriptures, highlight points in the preacher's sermon and show announcements.

Today was to be its unveiling.

Clutching her daughter, Deborah Tyler of Garfield stood, crying, watching the embers of the roof spiral into the place where the new video system once stood.

"I had to come and say goodbye to Ebenezer," she said. "I'm so distraught. This church is, was, so special to all of us. My daughter goes here. Her daughters would've gone to church here, too."

Ebenezer Baptist Church

Important dates in the church's history:

  • Church building built by Presbyterians in 1873.

  • Ebenezer congregation formed in 1875.

  • Ebenezer Baptist bought a church in 1906.

  • Host of the National Urban League conference in 1932.

  • Dr. J. Van Alfred Winsett becomes pastor in 1973.

  • Fire damages church in 1975, causing $300,000 in damage. Later restored.

  • Designated historic landmark in 1979.

    Sources: Church members and history

    Staff writer Vince Guerrieri also contributed to this story.

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