Centre Servers dedicate this site in honor of Rev. Dr. Donna King for her tremendous contribution to the research on the abolitionist movement in Bellefonte, Centre County, and walking tours of the Underground Railroad stops in Central Pennsylvania. Popularly known as Mama King, Dr. King was a mother, public historian, pastor, mentor, teacher, cancer advocate, community activist, and lecturer in African American Studies at Penn State University. She served as pastor of what residents of Centre County call the incredible "church on the hill" – St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E) Church, which played a significant role in the Underground Railroad after its establishment in 1859. Mama King felt the elders before her time handed the AME church for her to keep the doors open and its legacy alive. Hence she conducted walking tours to share remarkable historical knowledge of the Underground Railroad.
St. Paul A.M.E. Church is a documented site on the Underground Railroad.
According to the Mills Brothers Society (2001), St. Paul A.M.E. Church was the “cultural hub of the black community” and has been located here since 1859 on land donated by Quaker William A. Thomas. Thomas was mentioned at the Bellefonte Art Museum site, and will be further discussed at your next tour stop. The original frame church was destroyed by fire in February of 1909 and the present edifice was built in 1910.
You've also learned about William H. Mills along this tour. Mills also served as church secretary and was eventually certified to preach in the A.M.E. Church. After the fire in 1909, Mills set out to write a history of the A.M.E. Church and help fundraise for the construction of the present church. Mills wrote “A Brief History of the Origin and Organization of the A.M.E. Church of Bellefonte, Pa.," published November 8th, 1909. According to Mills, “after making diligent search for papers or records, I was unable to find any, as everything in the shape of records had been lost long before the writer had become identified with the church in March, 1881. I then resolved to make some inquiry of some of the oldest and most responsible colored citizens as to the early organization of the A.M.E. church here. The following information was given to me by the following persons, according to their memory, namely: Meshic Graham, Mariah Green, Margaret Powell and Tamazine McDonnel" Such memories, written by the hand of William H. Mills, not only share the history of the church, but shed light on "what was known in those days as the 'under-ground, railroad'” (Mills 1909, 5).
Mills also wrote a biographical sketch of another member of the A.M.E. Church, the Rev. Isaiah H. Welch, A.M.E. Scholar and founder and president of Wayman Institute, Kentucky. The inspiring story of Isaiah Welch also connects to the Underground Railroad in Bellefonte. Isaiah Welch was born in Maryland in 1845 and brought to Bellefonte as an infant with his parents on the Underground Railroad, where they "were concealed by the family of Mr. William A. Thomas" (Mills 1910).
As a child, Isaiah Welch worked as a "house boy" [sic] for Andrew Gregg Curtin. Curtin became governor of Pennsylvania during the Civil War. Isaiah longed to educate himself and went to Wilberforce University in 1861. In 1863, "Isaiah's patriotism prompted him to answer the nation's call for colored troops" (Mills 1910), and he enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers (USCT). He then transferred to the 55th, serving for two years and five months, and engaged in the storming of Fort Wagner and the capture of Charleston, South Carolina. Welch was wounded twice and rose to the rank of First Sargent. Welch also played a leading role in the 54th and 55th protests for equal pay in October 1864. After mustering out in 1865, he resumed his studies at Wilberforce University. Welch went on to become founder and president of Wayman Institute in Harrodsburg, Kentucky (in the Kentucky Conference of the A.M.E. Church). When the fire destroyed the original A.M.E. Church in Bellefonte, Welch sent donations for its reconstruction and visited Bellefonte, perhaps for the last time, in 1910.
Read more about Isaiah Welch in the attached files below.
African American 'Footprints' in the Sands of Bellefonte History. Walking Tour Pamphlet designed and produced by The Mills Brothers Society for its 2001 International Convention held in Bellefonte, PA. (Copy available at the Centre County Library & Historical Museum).
"African Methodist Espiscopal Church." Democratic Watchman (Bellefonte, PA). June 7, 1895. https://panewsarchive.psu.edu/lccn/sn83031981/1895-06-07/ed-1/seq-6/
Clemson, Daniel, and Susan Hannegan. Underground Railroad Activity in Bellefonte, PA. 2008.
Mills, William H. "A Brief History of the Origin and Organization of the A.M.E. Church of Bellefonte, Pa." 1909.
Mills, William H. "Interesting Sketch of a Former Citizen: How Rev. Isaiah Welch Rose from Obscurity. Born in Darkest Slavery. Was Brought to Bellefonte in Infancy and Worked on Farm, Longed for Education and Secured It, Now a Minister of the Gospel." Centre Democrat (Bellefonte, Pa.). Dec. 8, 1910.
Richings. G. F. An Album of Negro Educators. Philadelphia: 1900.