From the outside it looks like any other pretty Gothic Revival church (c. 1897), but the inside tells an entirely different story – one centered around the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
By the 1950’s the neighborhood had shifted from upperclass white to mostly African-American, and this area became a center for a branch of the civil rights movement that focused on black empowerment (more Malcolm X, less MLK). Progress Plaza, just a few blocks away, was the first shopping center in the United States to be built, owned and continuously operated by African Americans. It was the brainchild of local business leader and activist Reverend Leon Sullivan, a believer in empowerment, community development and self reliance.
Nearby Girard College (Yellow Fever, Civil Rights and The Richest Man in America – The Stephen Girard Collection) was the focus of nationwide desegregation efforts. The community was also home to Cecil B. Moore, a local politician prominent on the national level as a black power activist, City Councilman, lawyer, and NAACP President.
The Church of the Advocate was home to Reverend Paul Washington, another supporter of the Black Power movement. When his parishioners shared feelings that their experience was not validated in the church, he commissioned two Philadelphia artists, Richard Watson and Walter Edmonds (both PAFA alums), to paint 14 large murals illustrating the history of black people in America – relating it to the Jews’ persecution in Egypt detailed in the Old Testament. Each mural was based on a biblical passage, and included topics such as slavery, emancipation, and scenes from the civil rights movement.
The effect of the vivid, brightly painted murals against the backdrop of the church’s gothic architecture and Victorian stained glass imported from England is stunning.
Reverend Washington worked with prominent activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Angela Davis, and he permitted the church to host both the 1968 National Conference of Black Power and the 1970 Black Panther Conference. The goal of the 1970 conference, called the “The Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention,” was to join with other groups from the radical left, and together form a new Constitution that was inclusive of not only blacks, but also gays, women, Native Americans, anti-war protesters, etc.. Reverend Washington’s vision of equality extended to other groups, and it was here in 1974, with much controversy, that the first 11 women were ordained as Episcopalian priests.
Tours and field trips can be arranged on request.
18th and Diamond. North Philadelphia
Love the murals! They give the church such an amazing colourful interior, and of course tell an important story.
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Such a cool experience to walk in the church for the first time and just be dazzled by all the colors. If I was a churchgoer, this is the atmosphere I’d like to worship in!
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