This is the fifth article in a monthly series about Detroit’s North End. This is part of a monthly series about the community.
Sponsored by the Knight Foundation
In the early 1900s, African Americans from the South were migrating to Detroit in record numbers, hoping to find a better life powered by the city’s booming automobile manufacturing industry. From 1910 to 1930, Detroit’s Black population skyrocketed from 5,000 to 120,000 – and continued to soar.
As African Americans arrived, they found the necessity to practice their faith and religious beliefs through worship services, much like they had experienced in Black churches across the South. Among those seeking to continue their worship experiences in Detroit included an increasing number of Lutheran Black families, many coming from Alabama.
While living in the city’s neighborhood of Black Bottom, a handful of Black Lutheran families started holding rotating church services in their homes in the early 1930s. In 1934, the congregation of families began worshipping as St. Philip’s Lutheran Church, officially becoming Michigan’s first Black Lutheran house of worship.
As the congregation grew, they moved to a small one-room apartment on E. Warren and St. Antoine, just south of the North End. The constant growth of the church prompted another move in 1937, this time to North End’s Sherrard Junior High School on E. Euclid at Cameron.
According to research conducted and documented by the historian and longtime member of St. Philip’s Lutheran Church, William Broyles Jr., the church ultimately moved again to a vacant Jewish Synagogue on the North End’s King St., east of Oakland Ave.
“Whites began to leave the area between 1930 and 1936 with Jewish merchants remaining until the 1940s,” Broyles wrote in his historical account of St. Philip’s and the North End. “After the race riot of 1943, many of the remaining businesses that were looted and Jewish merchants slowly moved away.”
Broyles also wrote that St. Philip’s, while located on King St., was the subject of an article written and published by the Michigan Chronicle on the church’s 10th anniversary in 1944. The Michigan Chronicle, founded eight years earlier, cited the church’s expansion dilemma.
“The pastor and officers of St. Philip’s are presently concerned with a grave but welcomed problem about what to do about the membership that has outgrown the size of the present church,” Broyles documented what the Chronicle wrote in 1944.
Nevertheless, in the fall of ‘44, the church started St. Philip’s Day School (St. Philip’s Lutheran School) in the basement of its King St edifice, reportedly with one teacher and 12 students. With this small but significant development, St. Philip’s Lutheran School became Michigan’s first Lutheran educational institution for Black students. With a mounting reputation for its teaching excellence rooted in Christian principles, St. Philip’s population of students grew over the ensuing decade.
In the 1950s, St. Philip’s Lutheran Church and its elite private school moved to a new building on the southern edge of the North End, located at 2884 E. Grand Blvd. near Oakland Ave., where the church is still located.
“It was a school that my parents felt was excellent for me to attend for the 5th, 6th and 7th grades in the early 1960s,” said Rev. Dennis Talbert., who grew up in the North End community, and is a board member of the North End Youth Improvement Council. “For me, I was just going to the church’s school and learning a lot.”
“A critical reason why many parents wanted to send their children to St. Philip’s Lutheran School was because it was created as a private school for Black students,” he said. “St. Philip’s was building Black leaders.”
Talbert said that some of the students who attended the school were the “children or relatives” of prominent Black families in Detroit. Such families were headed by Berry Gordy (founder of Motown Records); Dr. Wendell Cox, Dr. Haley Bell and Dr. Robert Bass (founders of legendary Black radio stations WCHB, WCHD, and WJZZ); and Violet Lewis (founder of Lewis Business College, Michigan’s only HBCU).
St. Philip’s alums include such luminaries as Dr. L. Kimberly Peoples, former principal of Golightly Education Center in Detroit; the late Jewel Ware, former chair of the Wayne County Commission; actress Denise Gordy; Corie Pauling, president and CEO of the University of Michigan Alumni Association; Chris Jackson, prominent developer, co-principal and managing partner of Queen Lillian; New York Times best-selling author and Vanderbilt University writer-in-residence Alice Randall; and Kelli Van Buren, dean of Education, Arizona College of Nursing.
At its peak in a school year, St. Philip’s taught almost 400 students across various elementary and middle school grades. Unfortunately, the private school closed in 1996. However, St. Philip’s Evangelical Lutheran Church – ready to celebrate its 89th anniversary in November – remains a fixture in the North End, but with a renewed focus.
“We are focused on a ministry of reconciliation,” said Rev. Bertram B. Lewis Sr., St. Philip’s Lutheran Church’s senior pastor. “That means we have looked outside the church’s doors and saw things in the majority of the community that have drastically changed.”
Lewis said because of the pandemic and a flood in the church, St. Philip’s only returned to in-person worship last September. Yet, through adversities, the church continued its community outreach programs, such as drive-thru food giveaways and school supply pickups for kids. According to Lewis, St. Philip’s is in the process of restoring its youth mentoring program, community clothing bank and other empowering endeavors to serve the North End and beyond.
Lewis explained that more than a decade ago, there were approximately 40 Black Lutheran churches in Detroit, and now there are a handful, including the historic St. Philip’s.
“We want to expand to embrace anyone who wants to hear the word of God and participate in loving and helping their neighbors as they would do unto themselves,” Lewis said. “And we really want to continue to be a valuable part of this North End community, so we are going to do a blend of work that God has called us to do. However, a big thing for us, the first Black Lutheran church in Michigan, is to hold on to that and remind people that we are not going away.”