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Born from slavery and surviving today, Minnesota's first black church turns 150

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St. Paul's Pilgrim Baptist Church celebrates its 150th anniversary next weekend, a story that reaches back to 1863 when slaves first escaped the south, ventured up the Mississippi from Missouri and settled in Minnesota, creating the state's first black church.

The Star Tribune reports that some of the descendants of those escapees, paddling their way on a wooden raft, will be included in events next weekend. It will mark Pilgrim Baptist's growth from those humble, desperate beginnings into one of the most prominent churches in Minnesota.

“This church has had an awesome history,” Pilgrim’s senior pastor Charles L. Gill tells the Strib. “It’s gone through a lot of ups and downs, twists, turns. We’re still here. We’re still thriving.”

Minnesota Public Radio also examines the church's beginnings and history, noting Robert Hickman, an escaped slave from Missouri who 150 years ago led slaves traveling north on the Underground Railroad. According to MPR, the group of about 50, who called themselves "Pilgrims," journeyed by a self-made river boat to St. Paul in 1863, seeking freedom and a place to worship.

"I think he was a Minnesota pioneer," Hickman's great-great granddaughter, Sharon Harper, tells MPR. "I do think the fact that he was educated made the critical difference."

And so the history of the church includes its place in salving the destruction of St. Paul's old Rondo neighborhood for Interstate 94. It also has a role in shaping the integration of Minnesota, existing at a time when there were fewer than 400 blacks in the entire state.

"As we emerge out of this 150th year celebration," Gill tells MPR, "we will emerge not just having had a good time, but also to be a church that is relevant, powerful and fruitful in meeting the needs of the people."

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