Seattle's First African Methodist Episcopal Church is celebrating its 125th anniversary this weekend with a party and special service.

Share story

When Margaret Hardin moved as a girl from New Orleans to Seattle 84 years ago, she lived with a local doctor’s family for a few years and then moved into a YWCA in the Central Area.

There, a woman walked up to Hardin, who by then was 19 and working as a waitress, and said. “Come on, kid, I’m going to take you to church.”

So began Hardin’s nearly 80-year love affair with an institution that has embraced her and, over the decades, helped shape her life — Seattle’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).

“They always put their arms around me because they knew I didn’t have people here,” said Hardin, who, at 98, has been a member of the church longer than anyone.

Seattle’s First AME Church, the first and oldest African-American church in Seattle, is celebrating its 125th anniversary this weekend with a black and white gala on Saturday and a special worship service Sunday.

The First African Methodist Episcopal Church grew out of the Free African Society, which emerged in 1787 in Philadelphia when black members left St. George’s Methodist Church after being pulled off their knees while praying and forced to sit in the balcony. Leader Richard Allen and others transformed the society into a congregation that in 1816 won the right to be an independent denomination as the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Now with a membership of 3.5 million worldwide, First AME has been involved in the civil-rights movement locally and nationally; famed activist Rosa Parks was a member.

In Seattle, the congregation began in 1886 out of a Sunday-school group held in the homes of local African Methodist Episcopalians. Around 1890, the group bought property near 14th Avenue and East Pike Street that has been its home ever since.

Now with a membership of some 1,700, Seattle’s First AME is more than a church, also operating a Head Start program and several units of low-income housing.

It also offers an educational program that provides extra help for school children through volunteers. The vast majority of parish children now go on to attend college, according to church officials.

About 10 years ago the congregation faced a huge divide when the pastor at the time, the Rev. John Hunter, proposed selling the historic church building and moving the congregation to South King County, which has seen a huge growth in the number of African Americans.

Opponents of the move, including Hardin, picketed the church, and Hunter decided it would be better to keep the congregation in Seattle and add a Sunday service in Kent. That site now has a thriving congregation.

The Scott family will be recognized this weekend as the church’s largest family, with 19 members spanning three generations. They include a long line of educators, social workers and administrators.

Clara Scott, recently retired principal of Seattle’s TOPS at Seward School, said she found her first job in Seattle through the church.

“You really feel like you belong,” she said. “You can go to the church for all kinds of things, not just worship services. When you go to any city, we can find an AME church and the worship service is always the same, so you feel right at home.”

Her husband, George Scott, said the first Scott joined the church in 1956. “To me, the AME church has a lot of history,” he said.

Margaret Hardin has been a part of much of that history.

Born in New Orleans, she lived with her godmother, who was raising her, and worked part time for a doctor’s family ironing handkerchiefs. When the family moved to Seattle, they sent for her, with her godmother’s blessing. Through the milestones that followed — her time at the Y, vocational school, her marriages, the births of her two children, her job as a bus supervisor with Seattle Public Schools, Hardin never missed a Sunday at First AME.

When she couldn’t afford the 10-cent streetcar fare, she’d walk from her home about a mile away, up and over a steep hill.

Nowadays, Hardin, who is also involved in the Black Heritage Society, can’t drive so she spends her days sending cards to the sick and the shut-ins, and to those who have lost a family member.

But not those boxed cards, but special cards she buys at a card shop.

Shermella Garrett, the church’s presiding elder, said the works of the church and its members reflect the ideals of founder Allen.

“Self-reliance, education, training, helping the needy and the homeless. It’s keeping his legacy.”

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or

Material from The Seattle Times archives is included in this report.