Hiding in Plain Sight: St Paul A.M.E. Church & Missoula’s Forgotten Black History — UPDATED
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that church so quiet.”
By 1923, Missoula’s St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) had already endured resistance and resentment toward its mere existence on the 1400 block of Phillips Street. But members of the Black church were likely unprepared for what was about to come through their doors on the evening of July 29th.
According to a front page article in the Missoulian that ran the next day, the church had just started their regular 8 pm evening service when the doors opened and seven “spectral figures”of the Ku Klux Klan entered the building, marched down the aisle to the pulpit and faced the congregation in a semi-circle.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that church so quiet,” A.M.E. Rev. B.E. Edwards said.
But, surprisingly, the Klan’s ostensible purpose for disrupting their service that night was not to terrorize or commit violence. That summer, the Missoulian ran several articles promoting a community-wide fundraising effort to help the congregation renovate and remodel their house of worship.
The Klan’s leader wanted to chip in $20.
“By this visit, we want you to know,” he reportedly said, “that we are your friends and are interested in your welfare.”
The unspoken condition of that pledge — that they respect and keep their place in the social and racial hierarchy of white Protestant supremacy — was delivered by their white robes and insignia stitched to them. Their leaders said it all across the country as the Klan grew and spread into mainstream American life in the 1920s, forming more than 2,000 chapters including one in Missoula.
Right Next Door
…we seem to know so little about this now.
That the Missoula area had both an active Black church and a substantial Klan presence in 1923 may not be well known today as traces of both were all but gone by the mid 1940s and few, if any, local Missoula histories make mention of either.
While the Montana Historical Society (MHS) has brief histories written of Black churches in Montana, they do not include St. Paul A.M.E., despite the fact that Missoula had, at its peak, a larger congregation than the churches in Anaconda and Butte (both of which are mentioned on the MHS page).
I requested an archival photographic search for pictures of St. Paul A.M.E. with MHS but they were unable to find any. I checked with the wonderful staff with the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center’s Archives and Special Collections and have also come up empty there.
I’ve asked local historians what they know about St. Paul; some knew of its existence but didn’t know much more than that and others did not even know Missoula had a Black church.
I hadn’t either until this past September. Once I started looking into Missoula’s early Black history, I discovered the church was located literally next door to my house on the 1400 block of Phillips Street.
Like so much of the history of race in America, I was ignorant of this fact. And like the brutal and ugly reality of this country’s coarse history of racial oppression, it was hiding in plain sight.
But local newspaper accounts of their activities were quite common in that era. Weekly service announcements ran in the paper routinely. Stories of social events, fundraisers, A.M.E. District conferences, spiritual choir performances and a widely popular annual barbecue in Greenough Park were reported on with regularity. Yet we seem to know so little about this now.
Most importantly, the history of St Paul A.M.E. Church in Missoula as told in newspaper accounts, provide a good lens through which to view the racial climate of the city and country at the time and the challenges faced by Black Americans who migrated West after the Civil War.
Missoula’s Early Black Population
The goodwill may have given some soldiers a good reason to come back…
In 1890, Montana’s Black population was approximately 1% of the state’s population — a high that Montana has not come close to reaching since. Most of those residents were cavalry troops stationed at federal outposts. These well-known Buffalo Soldiers from the 24th and 25th Infantry of the 9th and 10th US Cavalry protected white settlers in the area from conflicts with Native Americans as well as intervened in social unrest, primarily labor strikes.
Fort Missoula was home to many of the soldiers from the 25th infantry. 1890 Census records show a Black population in Missoula County of 314, more than 2% of the population. The soldiers stayed until the late 1890s before being re-deployed to serve in the Spanish-American War. Their departure brought the number of Black people in Missoula County down to 54 in 1900.
By most accounts, relations between the Black infantry troops and local civilians during their time in Missoula were quite positive. The town showed enthusiastic support and gratitude when the soldiers left in 1898, with the newspaper reporting residents came out “en masse” to bid farewell.
“People were standing on every freight car and elevation, some with cameras and some without, to get a good farewell look and shot,” the Missoulian reported. “The cheering crowd extended as far as the Rattlesnake Bridge.”
The goodwill may have given some soldiers a good reason to come back as permanent residents, though they would find the town felt differently toward Black people living among them.
By 1910, Missoula’s Black population more than doubled from what it was in 1900. The growth was likely from returning soldiers as well as from an increase in Black Americans leaving the violent terrorism of the fully “redeemed” Jim Crow South. While most fled to the North, some also headed West in hopes of finding a place to live without the fear of lynching, debt peonage or the poverty and degradation of sharecropping.
Formation of the A.M.E. Church
“We would also like to know why the colored people of the west side have been called ‘undesirable citizens.’ ”
In April 1909, the Missoulian reported that a pastor from the 5th District of the A.M.E. Church was actively forming a local congregation in Missoula similar to ones fully established in Helena, Butte, Great Falls and Billings. The pastor said he already had 13 members who were busy trying to find a location.
That location, announced in the paper on April 6th 1910, was the old Lowell School building on the 1400 block of Phillips Street. The Missoula School Board agreed in a meeting the evening before to sell the property to the A.M.E. for $200.
The news drew a hostile reaction from many of Missoula’s west side residents.
Entrenched notions of Black inferiority were not confined to the South and Black citizens would discover they were not much more welcome in the North, East and West. Montana was no exception.
Just a year prior to the church announcement, the state enacted a law forbidding interracial marriages (with the noted exception of marriages between Native Americans and white people as the state already had a number of those unions.) In a brief editorial in 1910, the Missoulian opined, “When a white man desires to marry a negro woman — or when the shades are reversed — there should be such action taken as will prevent the step, not only here but anywhere.”
Two years before the interracial marriage ban, the vehemently racist South Carolina Senator Ben Tillman drew a large crowd at Missoula’s old Union Theater.
In his speech, he told his receptive audience: “You can’t make a white man out of a nigger, even if you do elevate him, even if you do encourage him, even if you do give him the liberty to govern.” According to the Missoulian, Tillman’s fiery screed “…was fully appreciated by many and it was felt impressively by all.”
On April 22, 1910, just two weeks after the sale of the old Lowell School building was announced, area neighbors gathered at the new Lowell School building on Sherwood with the stated purpose of taking “all lawful ways and means at our command to prevent the colonization of the west side by negroes.” Interestingly, the article did not identify any of the members present. But it did reveal the difficult lengths it took for the church to obtain the property — an obstacle that likely faced any Black buyer of real estate at the time.
“It was found upon investigation that the negroes had applied to several real estate dealers for lots in that vicinity, but had been refused. The site was finally obtained by getting the lots from real estate dealers in the names of white people and then having the deeds transferred to the negroes,” the paper reported.
West side residents at the meeting determined “the fair thing should be done” and formed a committee to pay the A.M.E. church for the cost of the property and lots “and give them a little bonus for their time and trouble.”
According to the Missoulian, church members originally agreed but, after conferring with A.M.E. leadership in Spokane, were instructed “to sell under no conditions.”
Deed records for the lots on the 1400 block of Phillips show two transfers in April of 1910 among white buyers who eventually transferred the lots to the church in 1911 — presumably holding the ownership until after the uproar had died down.
But in April and May of 1910, the incident brought many of the common racial beliefs and fears held by white Americans raging to the surface. As the Missoulian noted in its April 22nd article about the neighborhood meeting, “The feeling in the district is very high. Several negro families have secured houses there and it is feared that more will attempt to locate.”
Less than a week after the west side neighborhood meeting, a letter to the editor titled “A Pertinent Query” ran in the paper signed anonymously by “A Colored Citizen.” The letter posed an open question to west side neighbors wishing to know the reason for their objection to the church.
“We would also like to know why the colored people of the west side have been called ‘undesirable citizens.’ What have we done that this should be said of us? There is certainty about the question: Nature has placed us on earth and we must have some place to live and some place to worship.”
It didn’t take long for the question to get a thoroughly aggrieved answer. In a lengthy response a couple of days later on the editorial page, a “Property Owner and West Side Resident” explained that a Black church would “naturally” draw more Black residents to the neighborhood.
“A colored population…is never a desirable population in a white community,” they wrote. “Natural, social and civil law forbids the mixing of white and black races.”
The letter’s author went on to express a belief that the church purchase was an attempt by Black Missoulians to insinuate “themselves into [the] community under the guise of religion and the establishment of a church.” The author enumerated the perceived impact on the neighborhood, predicting the racist rationale behind housing discrimination practiced overtly from the 1920s until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
“The establishment of a negro church in their midst and the consequent drifting in of a colored population and locating around the church will depreciate property values and necessitate removal of all white people who do not desire to live in a negro community…,” the resident wrote.
“…what we must expect if the influx of the negro into our midst is not checked.”
The issue was forefront on the minds of the Fourth Ward Improvement Club when it met in early May. In an article about the meeting, members decided to pressure real estate agents and landlords to refrain from selling or renting to Black residents.
“In case the dealers and owners of real estate refuse to dispose of the negro element on the west side, a boycott will be instituted against them, but there is little doubt but that they will accede to the request of the west side tenants, as those already spoken to have agreed to do everything in their power to help the white people.”
During the meeting a man identified only as “a prominent business man” claimed to have witnessed two young Black boys grab a white girl and kiss her. It was an example, he said, of “the tendency of the negro.”
“This shows just what we must expect if the influx of the negro into our midst is not checked,” he said.
Accounts depicting Black males as overly libidinous and threatening to white girls and women were commonly invoked methods of stoking racial fears and almost always the pretext for lynchings in the South. Director of the African-American Studies Program at the University of Montana, Tobin Miller Shearer, said this type of story was pervasive at the time.
“It’s the Black predator trope — where the Black male is instantly assumed to be a sexual interloper outside the bounds of ‘civilization,’” he said.
“…the dusky residents have taken their departure to more neighborly zones”
The Fourth Ward Improvement Club formally agreed in their June meeting to a boycott of any real estate dealer or business man who allowed Black citizens to rent or buy property in the neighborhood. Members, though, did feel the issue was largely behind them and suggested their efforts had some noticeable impact.
“The negro question seems to be clearing up and several of the dusky residents have taken their departure to more neighborly zones,” the paper reported.
Interestingly, the 1910 census was being conducted at about the same time and provides a glimpse into the demographic makeup of Missoula. A general overview of the manuscript census data — which in some cases is difficult to read and make firm conclusions about — does appear to show that a plurality of Missoula’s Black population at the time lived in the 4th Ward.
Of the 148 individuals identified as either “Black” or “Mulatto” in Wards 1–4 , 61 lived in the 4th Ward. Scattered around at roughly 18 different residential locations, there was an almost equal number living in the two different districts that made up the Ward.
In contrast, the other three wards showed far more densely segregated disbursement. For example, 15 of the 26 Black or Mulatto residents in Ward 2 were located on the 200 block of West Main and West Front Street — home of Missoula’s Red Light District — and only one resident lived in the other precinct of Ward 2.
At least two of the households in the 4th Ward were the homes of military veterans including former 25th Infantry and Spanish-American War veteran Samuel Lundy and his family. In contrast to the three other wards that made up the core of the city of Missoula at the time, the 4th Ward had a greater mix of renters and homeowners and a larger share of gainfully employed residents.
The 4th Ward was likely the best area for Black residents trying to establish a family and make a living as houses were more affordable there for the working class Black families relegated to the lowest rung of the occupational ladder.
St. Paul A.M.E. Church Establishes Itself
If the issue caused some of the Black residents in Ward 4 to move, the church itself did not budge. Regular service announcements at their new building began to appear in the paper in June of 1910. Despite the open hostility to its presence, the A.M.E. church remained a center of social and cultural life for many Black Missoula residents over the next two and a half decades.
Historian Anthony Wood observed that the eight towns in Montana that maintained an active Black population in the early 20th Century — Helena, Butte, Anaconda, Missoula, Bozeman, Billings, Great Falls and Havre — were able to develop local Black businesses, fraternal organizations, civic groups and women’s groups as a result of having a church to support them.
“In every one of the aforementioned categories, the local church was not only a factor of their success, but vital to their very existence,” he wrote.
Indeed, in 1913, St. Paul A.M.E. Rev. C. N. Douglass led the formation of a “Negro Citizens’ Alliance” in response to undescribed racially-offensive signs that were posted at the ticket counter of the Empress theater and Pigg’s tamale parlors, according to the Missoulian. The stated purpose of the group was “the betterment of the conditions” of Missoula’s Black citizens but it eyed removal of the signs as a top priority.
“We think that the signs…are an insult to our race, and we are going to try and have them removed,” Douglass said. “I know of a number of negroes in other places who want to come to Missoula to live, and they expect to come to a place where they will be treated decently.”
St. Paul — as was typical for Black churches across the country — also served as a conduit for social affairs for the small community forming in Missoula. In addition to the regular Sunday services, the church held less strictly-religious events including chicken dinners, an Emancipation Proclamation celebration, a box social, and frequent choir concerts (which often packed the 125–150 seating capacity building with a majority white audience) where spiritual, folk and jubilee songs were performed by church members.
St Paul also formed a women’s group that was quite active in the late 1920s. Called “The Martha Washington Club of the Negro Women’s Federated Clubs of America,” they were an organizer of social and cultural activities which raised funds for the church and celebrated Black history in general.
For example, the club held a “Frederick Douglass Memorial” at the church in 1928 — a program that included spiritual songs, a talk about Douglass and poetry readings by famous writers Phyllis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
The Martha Washington Club held chicken dinners for the community at large at Greenough Park. They also celebrated “Negro History and Music Week” in 1930 as well as put on an Abraham Lincoln memorial program and a Lincoln-Douglas event held at the Y.W.C.A. in 1929.
In an article titled “African American Women in Montana,” the Montana Historical Society’s African American Heritage Resource page pointed out that activities like this were common across the state and held great significance not just within the Black community but in the greater white-dominated cities as a whole.
In 1915, St. Paul formally celebrated its establishment with an all-day event centered around the “laying of the cornerstone” which officially consecrated the building as a house of worship. The Puget Sound 5th District A.M.E. Bishop H.B. Parks attended the event and was joined by Missoula’s mayor and pastors of the white Methodist Episcopal church as well. The day included a barbecue, the dedication ceremony, and a program inside the church in which the history of St Paul A.M.E. was given by member Gladys Dorsey. There was also an evening program with an address by Bishop Parks as well as the pastor from the Helena A.M.E. Church.
The church had become a staple of Missoula and the town’s Black residents had a reliable institution upon which their social, civic, and spiritual needs could draw from.
Asking the Community for Help
“They are making an honest effort against all kinds of odds and should have assistance.”
By the early-1920’s, the church’s congregation grew to about 30 full members and the leadership wanted to make improvements and renovate the building. Their needs were too great to rely on help from within their congregation and an outreach effort to the white community began.
In early 1923, Missoula Mayor W. B. Beacom and Rev. H.S. Gatley of Missoula’s white Episcopal Church met with St. Paul’s building committee. Beacom came as a representative of the Kiwanis Club and Gatley on behalf of the Rotary Club. Both organizations worked together to spearhead fundraising efforts. Major events were planned for May and early August.
On May 7, Missoula’s Liberty theater was reportedly packed for a benefit concert for the church. The event was a performance from St Paul’s jubilee singers. According to the paper, the program “which consisted of camp meeting melodies, spirituelles, [and] plantation songs, was well chosen and every number effectively rendered.” The Kiwanis held a fundraising dinner of their own for the church on May 22nd and reported selling more than a hundred reservations.
Throughout the flurry of fundraising activity in 1923, the tone of the coverage by the Missoulian and the approach from white civic leaders helping out projected an air of self-serving charity and paternalistic approval of the church’s efforts to improve their perceived respectability in the community.
The headline for an article that spent most of its words describing the church and its pastor read, “White People Aid Church of Negroes.” In making his appeal for assistance, Mayor Beacom raised stereotypical fears of Black criminality by noting city reports showing an 80% drop in crimes committed by Black residents since the church was founded.
“I feel it is our Christian duty to help to bring this up to 100 percent,” Beacom reportedly said. “They are making an honest effort against all kinds of odds and should have assistance.”
Entrenched notions of Black criminality were widely held as the nation, wrapped up in the scientific revelations of Darwinian evolutionary theories, became increasingly focused on the idea that Black Americans were biologically predisposed to violence and, according to Professor Shearer, “therefore at fault for the racial animus directed at the Black community.”
By ignoring evidence of entrenched institutional racism, Americans often attributed the impact of their own discriminatory actions on bogus science that supported ideas of Black inferiority. The church was likely seen as a mitigating force to the established white community at the time.
And for their part, white community leaders and organizations came together to help. Civic clubs — Rotary, Kiwanis, the Chamber of Commerce, Masonic Lodge #13, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars #209, the Elks Club, among others — sold tickets for a couple of major fundraisers during the end of July and beginning of August. On July 26, an all-Black Missoula baseball team (called the “Missoula Browns”) played a fundraising game against “the old Missoula Highlanders” a team of former city league baseball players.
But the main event was an all-day feast in Greenough Park scheduled for August 1. The gathering at the park was to provide Missoulians with “real southern entertainment” with the roasting of “a 500 pound ox of aristocratic antecedents” and musical performances from the church’s jubilee singers and the city band.
The paper ran several articles in the days leading up to the barbecue. It also printed an advertisement on July 22nd with a caricatured graphic of a Black man in a top hat and pronounced lips eating a dripping watermelon. With the admonition to “Help the Negro to Help Himself!” the ad typified the demeaning ways Black Americans had been represented in the papers at the time.
“White cartoonists frequently depicted Black people in formal attire in order to mock the prospect of African American culture, success, and intelligence,” Professor Shearer said.
The combination of the man wearing a top hat and eating a watermelon showed a not-too-subtle disregard for the idea of Black social equality.
Fundraising Effort Draws the Klan
“…to be publicly proud of being white, Protestant, and a native-born American.”
Klan activity in Missoula started at least as early as June 1922, when an article announced: “One of the largest classes yet taken into the secret order of the Ku Klux Klan in Missoula was initiated early this week at a meeting held ‘somewhere in Missoula’’. This was according to the anonymous kleagle (head of the local Klan chapter) who referred to himself only as “E.N.C.”
Ads announcing Klan gatherings appeared on occasion in the early 1920s and they were always cloaked with an air of mystery with names and specific locations of meetings never fully disclosed.
“Klansmen — Secret meeting, Missoula Klan, fork of the roads 3 and 4. District N. See officers personally for transportation. No phone calls answered. — Exalted Cyclops,” read one ad.
The robed men made at least one public appearance before their surprise drop-in at St Paul. On Feb. 7, 1923, six members of the Klan exited a taxi cab in full costume at the Missoula cemetery right before the graveside service for a young man, Fred MacLean, who had died of spinal meningitis. They each held a red carnation and then, after “making the sign of the fiery cross,” faced each other and laid the flowers on the grave, according to an account in the Missoulian. They then quietly left the service “entered their conveyance and whirled away.”
And nearly a month before the barbecue fundraiser at Greenough Park, another meeting announcement ran in the paper.
It had to have been all of the advertisements and articles that ran in the weeks leading up to St. Paul’s big fundraiser that brought the Klan to the church on that evening of July 29th, just three days before the feast in Greenough.
The newspaper description of the event presents the scene in an almost light-hearted manner. A choir member is described as coming in abruptly before the Klan entrance “puffing and blowing” to take his seat. The church’s minister, according to the paper, was laughing about the situation, though it seems unlikely he would take such a vivid and symbolic demonstration of white supremacy in his house of worship so lightly. In the paper, he expressed gratitude for the donation and thanked the Klan.
“We want to thank them not only for the money but for the kind thoughts they expressed when they were here,” he was quoted as saying. The paper seemed to accept that statement with sincerity instead of questioning whether or not the underlying menace of the Klan’s presence might have pressured the minister to show gratitude he did not feel. The entire affair was treated more as an amusing anecdote than a threatening display that likely evoked panic and fear among the congregation.
The entitlement Klan members felt interrupting the service and commanding the attention of the congregation was a clear distillation of the social freedoms afforded the reactionary organization at the time. And while their new approach was less overtly violent than when they were stringing the charred bodies of Black Americans up for public display just 50 years earlier, the message was still the same: this country was the primary province of white Protestant men.
It’s a difficult event to make sense of today. But it was far from uncommon at the time. News accounts of Klan members going to A.M.E. churches and donating money were numerous. In 1923 alone, it happened at churches in Sardis, Mississippi; Dixon, Illinois; Independence, Kansas; Wadsworth, Ohio; and Belmar, New Jersey.
The Klan in America was never larger than it was in the 1920s. This second emergence of the secretive white Protestant society reached a total membership of around 2 to 5 million members, and spread across into every state in the country according to scholar Joshua Rothman in an article about the second rise of the Ku Klux Klan (The first being after the Civil War when white southerners violently fought against Reconstruction efforts to create racial equality, with the Klan responsible for numerous lynchings and other murders.)
The main appeal of the Klan in the 1920’s, Rothman explains, was its more innocuous-appearing emphasis on civic engagement, offering a wide plethora of means for white Protestant middle class American men to bond in a fraternal society celebrating their status. It gave them a chance, he wrote, “to be publicly proud of being white, Protestant, and a native-born American.”
Purdue University-Fort Wayne professor of history Christine Erickson, who grew up in Missoula, has been researching the Klan in Montana for a book she’s writing, Fraternity on the Frontier: The Ku Klux Klan in Montana during the 1920s. She said the church visit likely had multiple purposes and fear was only part of the picture.
“Intimidation was always part of the Klan — a message in no uncertain terms saying, ‘We are here and watching you,’” she said, “but church visitations were also a way to say ‘We support Protestants, no matter the color.’ I think it checks off the box labeled ‘good works in the community.’ ”
Professor Shearer said it was also likely that the A.M.E. Church was not overly threatening to the Klan because its focus was more on uplifting its Black members to earn their way into society rather than a political vehicle for fighting structural racism.
In the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, Black thought on integrating into American society after emancipation ran along a spectrum, Shearer said. On one end of that spectrum were the ideas espoused by the popular leader Booker T. Washington, and on the other end were those of Harvard-trained sociologist W. E.B. DuBois.
“Washington emphasized initial acceptance of social segregation in order to obtain trade and manual labor positions that would, in time, lead to integration,” Professor Shearer said. DuBois, in contrast, was a fierce advocate for “demanding immediate citizenship rights, pursuing higher education, and directly confronting white supremacy.”
In general, Shearer said, the A.M.E. was closer in its focus to Washington than to DuBois. Indeed, the wife of one the pastors of St Paul’s A.M.E. Church was a graduate of Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and the church did not seem to challenge the economic barriers that forced most Black Missoulians into low-paying service jobs.
The Klan and the City of Missoula — Not So Far Apart
“…let him be tenacious, zealous and unremitting — but never bold.”
In some important ways, there is not much difference between the Klan’s actions at the church on that Sunday evening and the greater white community at large during the week of the big event on the following Wednesday. Both clearly told Black citizens that they were in a different category of citizens while “checking off the box labeled good works in the community.” The town’s approach, though, did not evoke the intimidating unspoken threat of the robed vigilantes to deliver the message of their inferior social status.
On the Tuesday following the Klan visit and the day before the Southern BBQ, the Missoulian wrote a curiously sympathetic editorial praising the Klan’s charity. While decrying the barbarity of news of a lynching in Yazoo City, Mississippi, the paper chose to contrast that action with those of the local KKK.
“Anyhow, we prefer the Missoula way. There is a little church of negroes in this city engaged in a life and death struggle for existence. The Kiwanis raised a tidy sum to aid this church. Sunday night, the Missoula Ku Klux did a kindly act. In striking contrast with their Southern brethren, they marched into the church and left $20 with the astonished pastor.”
The piece went on to praise the community-wide effort to assist the church while simultaneously offering a typically patronizing and condescending regard for Black people in this country.
“The negro is in this country to remain,” they wrote. “He is capable of useful citizenship if treated half right. But he is capable of causing a lot of trouble if treated otherwise.”
On the day of the BBQ, the paper reported that about 500 people were present for the big feast that ran from 12:30 pm until about 8 pm including “the entire colony of local politicians.”
The conclusion of the all-day affair was an address by local Missoula attorney Harry Parsons titled “My Fellow American: The Negro.” Parsons seemed to think well enough of his words that he apparently gave the Missoulian a copy of it which they printed verbatim.
It is a revealing element of the event that a local white attorney was asked to speak and, as the paper reported, give “a concise history of the colored race” while members of the church looked on. Parsons overwrought speech was noticeably full of paternalistic platitudes coupled with crude generalizations and more than slight mockery.
“In all my career I have yet to find an unpatriotic negro. Cowards there are to be sure; weaklings and deserters a plenty; and slacker and malingerers not a few. But beneath his skin of black you will find an American — one who looks on his flag with patriotic devotion,” Parsons speech read. “He may be weak in other regards, but in patriotism never.”
Parsons went on to express great optimism for the future of Black Americans, provided they “keep (their) own race pure, as the Anglo-Saxon has done.” He also gave advice for how best they could carry on in the country. He extolled them to “be as submissive as Lincoln, submissive to law and order” and to always demonstrate humility.
“In all these, let him be tenacious, zealous and unremitting — but never bold,” he said.
In other ways, though, the barbecue was a success as it became an annual event in Greenough Park for the next few years. The community partnership had both helped the church and demonstrated the degree to which Black Missoulians were considered different from mainstream society. Like the jubilee concerts held at the church, the barbecue consistently drew large numbers of white Missoula citizens, allowing unique social interactions with the small enclave of Black residents.
The Klan Burns Out, The Church Fades Away
“All three of the crosses stood out clearly against their black backgrounds…”
The Klan continued to make themselves known around town. The local chapter met the head of the national order, Hiram Evans, during a brief train stop in Missoula in 1924. “The imperial wizard, a tall, heavy, red-faced cheerful personality, with a merry way of greeting all callers, is on a trip through the west,” the paper reported, “visiting various centers where the organization had gained or is seeking a foothold.”
In 1925, the paper reported the Klan set off “sudden explosions…signifying the meeting of Missoula Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” on the evening of April 11. Three burning crosses lit up Missoula Valley that night: one on Mount Jumbo, one on Waterworks Hill and one just south of the fairgrounds; a sight that all Missoulians — white, Black, Protestant, Catholic, Native American — could not avoid seeing.
“All three of the crosses stood out clearly against their black backgrounds,” the paper reported, “and were clearly cut ‘flaming crosses’ that could be seen for many miles.”
Some St Paul A.M.E. congregation members likely experienced déjà vu in 1926 when robed members of the Klan again interrupted the evening church service and upped their donation to $25. The minister at the time, Rev. Lewis Stewart was told that the Klan did not oppose their presence “as long as they helped themselves along the ‘right lines of citizenship,’” according to the paper. For the Klan, the “right lines of citizenship” for anyone who was not a white Protestant male meant subservience.
Yet in the same year of the second Klan visit, 1926, the church recorded its highest number of full members at 35. It’s a confusingly strange fact of Missoula history that both Missoula’s Black church and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan University City #16 (the formal name of the Missoula chapter) had their largest member base at roughly the same time.
On the national scene, though, the Klan’s days were numbered. As Rothman notes, by the end of the 1920’s, Klan membership had plunged “practically into insignificance.” Internal fighting, a tightening of US immigration laws, strong political opposition and an easing of the Post-World War I recession took a lot of wind out of their sails.
The A.M.E. Church, unlike the Klan which seemed to fall off the map in Missoula by the late 1920’s, stayed active into the mid-30s with regular church announcements appearing in the paper. They hosted a 5th District Conference in 1931 attended by 25 delegates from churches in the Pacific Northwest. In 1933, Missoula’s Presbyterian Church was nearly filled to its 800 seating capacity to hear the church’s jubilee singers.
But their prospect of a long-term presence in Missoula started to ebb as the decade progressed. Membership numbers of the St Paul A.M.E. Church reported in the ledgers at the district conference in 1935 listed only 8 full time members and notices of service announcements slowed and then stopped entirely by the end of April 1938. The building was later rented out by the Church of God for services in both 1938 and 1939, according to announcements in the paper.
If the church provided a modest toehold for Black residents in Missoula in the early 20th Century, the dramatic economic and social changes of the Great Depression, World War II and the subsequent economic boom of coastal manufacturing were a full force gale that many Black families who called Missoula home in the 30’s could not withstand.
According to census data, the percentage of Black residents in Missoula County reached its height in 1930, when they accounted for a very modest 0.5% of the population. But even that low number fell dramatically by 1960 when Black Americans made up just .12% of Missoula.
It would be simpler to understand if Missoula as a whole stagnated, but at the same time Missoula’s Black population plummeted, the overall population of the town doubled. That population changes could move in opposite directions like that speaks to the precarious nature of Black life in America.
These days, Missoula’s Black population is seeing a modest growth in both number and percentage, but, as of 2010, they still make up a smaller share of the population than they did 80 years prior.
The St Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church building at 1427 Phillips Street was sold in 1946 to Herbert Wohl for $2,000. Since then, the property has been renovated for residential use and no outward signs that the building was once a church are apparent.
My neighbors who live there now with their two adorable children are like the rest of us on the 1400 block of Phillips Street: white, middle class folk who prefer to live in a comparatively affordable neighborhood. We enjoy the eclectic community and feeling of close connection to the city’s core. I would like to think that we would welcome an A.M.E. church in our midst.
That possibility seems so very remote now. Our predecessors told them they weren’t welcome. Anonymous Missoulians intimidated them with their white robes and hoods. White city leaders engaged in performative support while laughing at the idea of them as social equals. And in the time since, we have forgotten the church was part of our community.
But articles and some records can still be found for those who would rather not forget that Black Americans, not 50 years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, tried to build a community in Missoula and used the church as a means of living a better life than they had known in the South. They are there for those of us who don’t want to forget that the struggle of integrating into Missoula — like so many other towns across the nation — was an uphill battle for the children of those our ancestors enslaved. The paths for achieving their dreams were far more limited than for the white immigrants drawn to this not-so-unique town in the valley of the Rocky Mountains.
UPDATE: In earlier versions of this article, I failed to cite and thank Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Spokane for providing primary source documents from 5th District AME conference ledgers during the time of St Paul’s existence. It showed congregation size at specific years of regional churches. I’m grateful to Lillie Harris and Pastor Lonnie Mitchell for their help.
UPDATE #2: Added information about St Paul’s women’s club that held several social and cultural events in the late 1920s.
UPDATE #3: Included an overview of the Missoulian’s editorial after the first Klan visit to the church.
 “Klan Makes Visit to A.M.E. Church,” July 30, 1923, Missoulian p. 1
 Anacker, Caelen “Buffalo Soldiers in Montana (1888–1898)” — Blackpast.org, https://blackpast.org/aaw/buffalo-soldiers-montana-1888-1898
 “Good Bye to 25th,” April 11, 1898, The Daily Missoulian, p. 1
 “Colored Preacher Founds New Church,” Missoulian April 20 1909, Page 3
 “Vote is Approved at Board Meeting,” Missoulian April 06 1910, Page 10
 “Racial Legislation in Montana 1864–1955,” Glenda Rose Eruteya, University of Montana, ScholarWorks
 [Editorial], Missoulian, January 5, 1910, p. 4
 “Senator Tillman Pleases Large Missoula Audience,” Missoulian October 10, 1907, p.1
 “Meeting Discusses Negro Question,” Missoulian, April 22 1910 p.2
 “A Pertinent Query,” [Letter to the Editor} Missoulian April 26, 1910, p. 10
 “ ‘A Colored Citizen’ Receives an Answer,” Missoulian April 29, 1910, p.2
 “Improvement Club Takes Action,“ May 06, 1910, Missoulian, p. 9
 “Improvement Club Brings Out Facts,” May 07, 1910, Missoulian, p. 10
 “Council and Mayor are Censured,” June 3, 1910, Missoulian, p. 5
 “Thirteenth Census of the United States: 1910 — Population” Missoula County, Missoula Wards 1–4, Dept. of Commerce and Labor — Bureau of the Census
 Wood, Anthony, “African American Churches of Montana,” Montana Historical Society https://mhs.mt.gov/Shpo/AfricanAmericans/History/AfricanAmericanChurches
 “Colored Citizens Would Better Selves,”June 06, 1913, Missoulian, p. 2
 “Cornerstone Laid at African M.E. Ceremony,” July 28, 1915, Missoulian, p. 8
 “Colored Church Members Ask Funds for Building,” Feb. 10, 1923, Missoulian, p. 2
 “Local Colored Singers Please Large Audience,” May 7, 1923, Missoulian, p. 8
 “Kiwanis Club Members Dine for Church Aid,” May 22, 1923, Missoulian p. 5
 “White People Aid Church of Negroes,” Mar. 18, 1923, Missoulian, p. 4
 “Barbeque Planned in City in August,” July 8, 1923, Missoulian, p. 2
 “Big Barbeque Will Be Held Wednesday,” July 29, 1923, Missoulian, p. 2
 Advertisement, July 22, 1923, Missoulian, p. 20
 “Kleagle Says Large Class is Initiated,” June 8, 1922, Missoulian, p. 2
 [Advertisement], Feb. 6, 1923, “Missoulian,” p. 8
 “Klansmen Drop Flowers Into Grave of Maclean,” Feb. 7, 1923, Missoulian, p. 2
 [Advertisement], June 22, 1923, Missoulian, p. 6
 “Klan Makes Visit to A.M.E. Church,” July 30, 1923, Missoulian p. 1
 “Sardis Klan Rides,” July 30, 1923, The Winona Times, p.4
 “Dixon Clan Gives Purse to Colored Church Last Eve,” Oct. 15, 1923, Dixon Evening Telegraph, p. 1
 “Klan Aids Negro Church,” Nov. 22, 1923, The Fort Scott Tribune, p. 1
 “Klan Gives Purse to Colored Church,” Dec. 17, 1923, Akron Beacon Journal, p. 13
 “25 Klan Members Attend Colored Church Service,” Dec. 24, 1923, Asbury Park Press, p. 1
 Rothman, Joshua, “When Bigotry Paraded Through the Streets,” Dec. 4, 2016, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/second-klan/509468/
 “White People Aid Church of Negroes,” Mar. 18, 1923, Missoulian, p. 4
 “Barbecue a Success on Greenough Park,” Aug. 2, 1923, Missoulian, p. 3
 “Klan Imperial Wizard Passes Through City,” Nov. 16, 1924, Missoulian , p. 3
 “Blasts by Klansmen Startle Missoulians.” April 12, 1925, Missoulian, p. 2
 “Robed Klansmen Enter Church With Offering,” June 7, 1926, Missoulian, p. 10
 Rothman, Joshua, “When Bigotry Paraded Through the Streets,” Dec. 4, 2016, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/second-klan/509468/
 “A.M.E. Church Opens Meeting,” May 21, 1931, Missoulian, p.7
 “Jubilee Concert Pleases Missoula,” Oct. 30, 1933, Missoulian, p.5