Snow Day on Birdsell
At 3:30 in the afternoon on Sunday, January 27th I, accompanied by collaborators Helen Cramer, Robert Ramsey, Joshua Mullet, and Anna Kennedy, ventured outside for a frigid, snowy photo walk. Longtime readers will recognize that I’ve published a story on this area before – Linden Avenue, That’s South Bend – with my friend Trey Nixon. Though Trey was unable to make this walk, I returned to tell a more holistic story.
We began at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, walked East on Linden, South on Birdsell out to Washington, West on Liston, and North on Adams to arrive back at the MLK Jr. Center basketball courts.
See our perspective on the Birdsell Street district:
In her book Better Homes of South Bend, author Gabrielle Robinson describes the neighborhood surrounding Birdsell Street as a once “vibrant African American business district” which included businesses such as Uncle Bill’s Big House and the Liston Hotel. At the end of the third chapter she writes about local organizer Charlotte Pfeifer’s experience of the area as a teenager:
The Chapin Street neighborhood declined in the later 1950s together with the factories and the slum clearance of Maggie’s Court and Horse’s Alley. However, the Birdsell Street area still grew during that time. As a teenager, Charlotte Pfeifer, who was to become a member of the South Bend City Council, loved to walk about that neighborhood. She was raised in the nearby village of Niles, Michigan, where she always stuck out as a minority. But here she was among many other African Americans, strolling along the busy tree-lined streets, admiring the beautiful homes, shopping and laughing together. She vowed to live there when she grew up. And she did. But eventually the Birdsell Street district also deteriorated as more and more people moved out of the city. Today, the once vibrant area with well-cared-for homes and thriving businesses is mainly empty lots and, except on Sundays, empty parking lots.
Along Linden Street, across from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, an archetypal row of storefronts hark back to the district as remembered by Charlotte.
A number of neighborhood church buildings – Pilgrim Baptist, Greater St. John Missionary Baptist, St. Augustine’s, and New Testament Missionary Baptist – have stood the test of time and have played vital roles in South Bend’s history. St. Augustine’s, founded in 1928, became the area’s first fully-integrated Catholic church and Pilgrim Baptist, founded in 1890, holds the honors of being the city’s first African-American Baptist church and the site of the local NAACP chapter’s founding. In 2015, the South Bend Tribune published an article about Pilgrim Baptist to commemorate their 125th anniversary:
The church was founded in 1890 as Mount Zion Baptist Church under the leadership of the Rev. W.M. Ridley and now has about 200 members. The original small, wooden-frame building donated by the Studebakers, was located at the corner of Main and Jefferson streets. In July 1891, the building was moved to the church’s current location at 116 N. Birdsell St.
Construction of the current building began in 1919 and was completed in 1926.
The name was changed to Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in 1920.
The Rev. H. Gregory Haygood has been the church’s pastor for 25 years, succeeding the Rev. Charles G. Rowlett, who served as pastor for 34 years from 1955 to 1989. Haygood spoke about the church’s growth over his tenure as pastor and the church’s larger mission.
“There is a greater spiritual depth among the membership. We have certainly become a more loving church,” Haygood said. “That is one of our goals, to really demonstrate the love of Christ through the membership because we feel that Christ’s love in those who he’s saved is attractive to those outside of the church. ...The (church’s mission) is to wed people to Jesus Christ first and foremost, but also to administer to the total needs of people regardless of race, color or nationality.”
We owe a debt of gratitude to Gabrielle Robinson, Charlotte Pfeifer, and countless others who are preserving our city’s history. While I live nearby, play basketball outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, and have visited Greater St. John a number of times, it was not until reading Better Homes of South Bend that I became aware of the area’s rich heritage as a vibrant African American business district.
Even better is that as I read the ‘Acknowledgements’ section of the book, I see that many of the people who contributed to this recording of history are people I know to be active in our city today working towards the justice and prosperity that has proven elusive for far too many of our neighbors for far too long.
That’s South Bend.