History of Our Church: Rockford's Oldest African American Church

On Sunday mornings, in churches throughout the Stateline, people from all ethnic backgrounds can come together for morning worship, a move that was impossible in the 1800s. That fact prompted a former slave to establish Rockford's first African American church. One hundred and twenty-four years later, Allen Chapel A.M.E. is still going strong, opening its doors to people from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds.

Welcome to Allen Chapel AME...It's the church that coined the phrase, "We are the everyday church for everyday people."

Allen Chapel has deep roots in the Forest City.

"It's a very strong, a very rich history. It's always been about Education and bettering oneself and just embracing everyone,” states Rev. Charlene Bulls-Mills, Pastor of Allen Chapel A.M.E.

Allen Chapel is Rockford's first African American church, a result of the hard work of  Peter Blakely, a former slave from South Carolina, who was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.

While in South Carolina, Blakely was known as a trail blazer.

"...While he was in South Carolina, he ran the Underground Railroad from his plantation down there, which was pretty interesting to find out," states Charlean Byrd, one of the church's Historians.

And, Blakely continued to be at the forefront for Civil Rights when he came to Rockford.

"The church was formed because the members of the White church did not want the African Americans to come and sit in their church service," adds Estelle Black, another church Historian.

Their history dates back to the 1800s.

"September 1891, it was organized. And, they met in the house of Maria Donely which was the Mother-in-Law of Peter Blakely," Byrd states.

They met there for about 2 months.

Then, Byrd says, they gutted the house to build something bigger and better, "And, in 1917, that’s when the second building was erected. And, they tore down the house and then the meetings were held at the GAR Hall. And, they met there until the new church was completed."

The church remained on Winnebago and Elm Street for nearly ninety years. In 2006, they purchased another building located on Rural Street. The new location gave them a new home to keep the church's growing legacy alive.

"We've always been there for the entire community, not just for our membership, but for those people who were in need. And, that's what sticks with me because I believe it's important to believe in what you say you are--and actually walk the talk, and that's what Allen Chapel has done," Black affirms.

And, one-hundred and twenty-four years later, Allen Chapel is still making history. Their current Pastor, Rev. Charlene Bulls-Mills, is the first woman to serve as Pastor.

"For us to have Pastor Mills as our leader is wonderful, and the church follows her leadership because she is such a good pastor," Black proclaims.

"This is my fourth congregation. And so, at my three previous churches, I was also the first woman Pastor. But, what I see differently about Allen Chapel is this is the first place that I was celebrated," Rev. Bulls-Mills recalls.
Throughout its existence, Allen Chapel has made countless contributions to the community by maintaining a legacy of service to God and mankind, embracing diversity, and moving forward. There are also a number of prominent African Americans who are a part of their church body: Rockford's only African American Mayor--Charles Box, The first African American to earn the status of Valedictorian in the Rockford Public Schools system --Dr. Marisha Cook, The first African American professional Librarian---Estelle Black, The first African American elected to the Rockford School Board--Marcella Harris, and famed record Producer/Composer--James "Big Jim" Wright, to name a few. After more than a century of service, what's their vision for the future?

"I see us going more in the direction of teaching. We've been blessed with a wonderful edifice...lot of classrooms, a lot of space. So, our focus is on the community." Rev. Bulls-Mills declares.

 

 

 

 

 

"We are the everyday church for everyday people."