By the History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff
In the 1860s, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was the second religious institution to be established within the new city of Lake Forest, closely following the First Presbyterian Church (1859). The church was first organized in 1866 by Lake Forest’s pioneer African American residents, who raised $900 to erect a frame church building in 1870 at the corner of Washington and Maplewood.
Why was this site selected? Because it was in the heart of Lake Forest’s earliest Black neighborhood. City founders, led by the antislavery advocate Sylvester Lind, sold land to the Black families who settled here in the 1860s. Three of the lots (numbers 248, 249 and 250) on the south side of Maplewood near Washington soon housed the Marshall, Williams, Hayes, Slater, Fletcher, and Hughes families, as well as the AME Church. These homes were located just south of Lake Forest Academy and Lake Forest University (now College), where several early Black residents worked.
There are no known photos of the AME Church, but this map shows it was built on the corner of Maplewood and Washington.
It was the practice of the AME Church at the time to reassign clergy every few years; often Lake Forest shared a pastor with congregations in Glencoe or Waukegan, forging connections between the towns. But many local African American community leaders served on the church’s Board of Trustees. There was Samuel Dent, who ran a livery business; Alexander Marshall, the caretaker and custodian at Lake Forest Academy; Smith Hayes, a Civil War veteran and property owner; and Peter Williams, who ran a restaurant, among others.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the AME Church had become a pillar in the Lake Forest community. Events and services were open to all, with Academy and University students often in attendance. In 1900, the church hosted a picnic in Farwell’s Grove, which featured foot races and bicycle races alongside food and singing.
White neighbors were involved in the church as well, with Sylvester Lind serving as long-time Sunday School superintendent and John V. Farwell giving addresses to the congregation. The AME Church enjoyed a collaborative relationship with First Presbyterian Church, exchanging speakers for services and choirs for concerts. Members of First Presbyterian had helped raise funds for the AME church’s initial construction and continued to provide financial support.
The 1917 Sanborn Fire Insurance map pictured above reveals the location and layout of the AME Church, circled in red. By the time this map was drawn, Lake Forest Academy had expanded across the street to the south side of Maplewood, where the gymnasium and athletic fields were located, and the 1800s-era residences along Maplewood from that early African American neighborhood had been razed. (However, a few homes built in the early 1900s remain on the northeast corner of Washington and Illinois.)
Though no images of either the AME church or the houses in this neighborhood exist in the archives at the History Center, we hope to discover some one day! We know about the homes from archival sources like the U.S. Census, Shields Township tax assessment rolls, and Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. In recent years, Lake Forest College professor Dr. Rebecca Graff has led archaeology students on excavations of the site, now part of South Campus.
In 1929, Lake Forest Academy also acquired the AME Church site at the corner for another campus expansion. According to historian Edward Arpee, the former church building was moved across the street and utilized for a time as the LFA infirmary.
So what happened to the AME congregation? In the early 1920s, with their 50-year-old church building in disrepair, the church sought to relocate to a site owned by member Smith Hayes at Illinois Road and Bank Lane, an intersection then home to Black residences and businesses (now the site of the Deer Path Inn). Also in the church’s plans was the construction of a community center, which would offer social services and job training. This aroused considerable opposition among some property owners in the area and ultimately did not go forward. Church members found other places to worship, in Waukegan, Glencoe or at First Baptist in Lake Forest, and the congregation disbanded.
More about the AME church’s history and Lake Forest’s Black community can be found in the History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff exhibit “Deeply Rooted and Rising High: African American Experiences in Lake Forest.” The exhibit will be in the gallery through November 2023. Open hours are Tuesday-Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.and Saturday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.– admission is free. Visit lflbhistory.org to learn more.