Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. | The U.S. National Archives

As the United States observes Black History Month, many are looking back in time to learn more about those who’ve shaped our nation.

The contributions of African Americans to U.S. history are pervasive and include people from all walks of life who became soldiers, activists, inventors, athletes, scientists, entertainers and a president.

Here’s a list of eight notable African American Christian leaders. They include a famed civil rights leader, a pioneering female preacher, and a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Gowan Pamphlet

Few details are known about the life of notable slave preacher Gowan Pamphlet, who eventually bought his freedom and oversaw a congregation of several hundred.

What is known is that he was a popular Baptist preacher among slaves in the Williamsburg, Virginia, area during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and was noted as an early pastor for the historic First Baptist Church of Williamsburg.

According to historian Jan Couperthwaite, Pamphlet has several firsts to his credit: the first African American preacher to be accepted into the Virginia-based Dover Baptist Association, the first to own real estate in Williamsburg, and the first to be ordained while still a slave.

Richard Allen

Richard Allen (1760-1831), founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Richard Allen (1760-1831), founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. | Public Domain

The founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Richard Allen, was born to slaves in 1760. 

Allen became a Methodist at age 17, partly because of the church’s official opposition to slavery. But because he still experienced racial prejudice in the religious sect, he decided to found his own denomination in 1816.

Allen helped found Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an influential historically African American congregation.

In 2016, two centuries after Allen founded the AME Church, the United States Postal Service released a stamp in his honor, describing him as “one of the most important African-American leaders of his era.”

“His life — a legacy of determination, uplift, charity and faith — remains an inspiration to all Americans,” stated the Post Office in 2016.

Jarena Lee

An 1849 picture of Jarena Lee (1783-circa 1855), the first official female preacher for the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
An 1849 picture of Jarena Lee (1783-circa 1855), the first official female preacher for the African Methodist Episcopal Church. | Wikimedia Commons

The Rev. Jarena Lee was the first official female preacher of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, being granted a license by Bishop Richard Allen, the denomination’s founder.

Born Feb. 11, 1783, in Cape May, New Jersey, to free black parents, Lee was baptized in 1807 into the AME Church and given authorization to preach in 1819.

“Reverend Lee was a true itinerant evangelist,” explained the AME Church’s Social Action Commission. “She proclaimed the Gospel extensively throughout the Northeastern United States and Canada, traveling more than 2,800 [miles] by foot preaching more than 692 sermons.”

Harriet Tubman

Anti-slavery crusader Harriet Tubman is seen in a picture from the Library of Congress taken by photographer H.B. Lindsley between 1860 and 1870.
Anti-slavery crusader Harriet Tubman is seen in a picture from the Library of Congress taken by photographer H.B. Lindsley between 1860 and 1870. | (Photo: REUTERS/Library of Congress/Handout)

Nineteenth century abolitionist Harriet Tubman is known for leading slaves to freedom during the Antebellum Era and actively supported the Union Army during the American Civil War.

Nicknamed “Moses,” Tubman was a practicing member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and claimed to have visions as a youth following a beating from an overseer when she was a slave.

“Like Joan of Arc before her, Tubman believed she possessed divine visions and communication with a higher existence,” noted The Prague Review.

“It wasn’t just Tubman that believed this but the people around her as well. Slaves would remark on how Tubman would ‘consult with God’ on journeys back north. It was said at Port Royal during the Civil War, when she treated the ill yet contracted no disease herself, that Tubman must be blessed by God.”

Charles Albert Tindley  

Methodist minister and Gospel music pioneer Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933).
Methodist minister and Gospel music pioneer Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933). | Wikimedia Commons

A native of Berlin, Maryland, whose father was a slave, Charles Albert Tindley was a Methodist pastor whose contributions to sacred music remain relevant in the modern day.

The mind behind songs like “Stand by Me,” “Nothing Between,” and “Beams of Heaven,” in 1982, the Smithsonian presented a combination musical tribute and colloquium on his work.

“Tindley’s compositions influenced Thomas A. Dorsey and Roberta Martin, and formed the base for a new black urban sacred music — gospel,” reported The Washington Post at the time.

“Later, the hymns composed during the twilight of Tindley’s ministry reflected his faith — ‘Spiritual Springtime,’ ‘A Better Day Is Coming By-and-By,’ ‘The Home of the Soul,’ ‘I’ll Be Satisfied,’ and ‘He’ll Take You Through.’ These and many other hymns establish, without fear of contradiction, that Tindley was the father of gospel music.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C.
Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C. | Public Domain

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C. | Public Domain

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a renowned civil rights activist who, years after his death, got a federal holiday in his honor.

A native of Atlanta, Georgia, King oversaw marches and demonstrations against racial inequality, leading an organization known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

King is credited with playing a crucial role in the fight against institutional racial segregation and was a major figurehead of the civil rights cause until his assassination in 1968.

“Through his activism and inspirational speeches he played a pivotal role in ending the legal segregation of African-American citizens in the United States, as well as the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” noted Biography.com.

“Through his activism and inspirational speeches he played a pivotal role in ending the legal segregation of African-American citizens in the United States, as well as the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” noted Biography.com.

T. Vaughn Walker

Dr. T. Vaughn Walker, longtime professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the first African American to be elected as a full professor at an SBC seminary.
Dr. T. Vaughn Walker, longtime professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the first African American to be elected as a full professor at an SBC seminary. | X/Albert Mohler

Dr. T. Vaughn Walker, longtime professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the first African American to be elected as a full professor at an SBC seminary. | X/Albert Mohler

T. Vaughn Walker was the first African American elected as a full-time professor at a Southern Baptist Convention seminary, serving at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, for 30 years.

A native of Heathsville, Virginia, Walker was born in 1950 as the eldest son of Thomas and Mary Walker. In 1984, he earned a doctorate degree from Oregon State University and became an educator.

In 1986, Walker was appointed the first African American professor at any Southern Baptist seminary, eventually being elected to the faculty in 1997.

Walker also served as senior pastor of the First Gethsemane Baptist Church in Louisville, holding the position from 1984 until his death in 2019.

At a luncheon celebrating his retirement from being a professor in May 2016, Walker said he considered his signing the Abstract of Principles, SBTS’ statement of faith, the “most compelling emotional moment for me here.”

“I know I was the first African-American, at No. 200, to sign it. I even wondered whether an African-American had ever touched that book before, had ever had his hands on it,” said Walker at the time.

Fred Luter

Fred Luter, Jr., Southern Baptist Convention president, delivers a message of revival to more than 4,400 people attending the annual SBC conference, in Houston, Texas, on June 11, 2013.
Fred Luter, Jr., Southern Baptist Convention president, delivers a message of revival to more than 4,400 people attending the annual SBC conference, in Houston, Texas, on June 11, 2013. | Christian Post/Scott Liu

Fred Luter Jr., the head pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, made history in June 2012 when he became the first African American president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The election, which Luter won unanimously, showed that the SBC had come a long way from its origins in the Antebellum Era, when it was originally founded as a pro-slavery Baptist church body.

Richard Land, president emeritus of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Matthews, North Carolina and executive editor of The Christian Post, wrote in a column published in 2012 that Luter’s election was “a significant step on a journey to complete racial reconciliation.”

“His extraordinary faith and leadership will hasten the journey, and Southern Baptists are indeed blessed that God raised up Fred Luter to lead us at such a time as this in our denomination’s, and our country’s, history,” wrote Land at the time.

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