After decades serving other purposes, the building which housed the first Black church in New Hampshire may become the home of its newest.
A community calling itself New Friends of the Pearl is working to raise funds to purchase the building at the corner of Pearl and Hanover streets in Portsmouth. If they succeed, they will lease the property to the Sovereign Souls Fellowship African Methodist Episcopal Church, under the leadership of Rev. Robert H. Thompson.
A bronze plaque affixed to the building by the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail gives the following brief history:
“In 1915 the congregation of People’s Baptist Church, which had been meeting at the South Ward Hall for more than twenty-five years, bought this 1857 building for $1200. Though officially Baptist, its membership was multidenominational. For decades it was the heart of Black Portsmouth’s social, political, and spiritual life. Among its many distinguished visitors was the young Martin Luther King, Jr. who preached here on October 26, 1952.”
The building was sold in 1984, to facilitate the building of the New Hope Baptist Church on Peverly Hill Road. It became a restaurant, served as a function hall, and, more recently—until the pandemic threw a stick in the spokes—served as an office for a global shipping company.
In June, the Portsmouth Herald reported that the building was on the market for $1.5 million.
Perusing the Boston Globe on October 1st, we were surprised to see The Pearl get a mention in a column by Alex Beam. “Remind me again,” Beam wrote, “Facebook is the greatest instantiation of satanic evil in the 21st-first century . . . why? I’ve been on Facebook for over a decade, and here are some typical recent interactions: I learned that the Rev. Robert Thompson is trying to buy New Hampshire’s first Black-owned church, The Pearl, in Portsmouth. Facebook facilitated donations, and I made one. …”
Having searched Facebook in vain for a fund-raising page, we reached out directly to Rev. Thompson.
“I had resisted the idea of starting a church for some time,” he said “because I didn’t feel that I had the specific gifts necessary to begin a new work. But, when the Pearl became available, it triggered something in me and made me feel that perhaps building a new work in Portsmouth might be something I could do.
“I began to become very excited about the idea of an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Portsmouth. As I thought about it, the idea of a congregation of primarily white people being part of a historically and predominantly Black Christian denomination would be an unusual experience.”
Contributions may be made towards the building purchase by checks made out to New Friends of the Pearl. Contributions may also be made to Sovereign Souls Fellowship. Both may be mailed in care of Robert H. Thompson, 15 Colonial Way, Exeter, N.H. 03833
[Note: We began using the term “Alleged News” years ago, in our printed paper, in reference to our own work. Mostly meant to be a small amusement, it also acknowledges our sense of fallibility—which, of course, we share with other, more recently-founded providers of news. The term has since been incorporated into this website as a “category,” in such a way that we are obliged to use it on all news, whether created by us, or by others. Generally, this has proven to be a harmless little gag. In this case, we wish to emphatically state that this story is not “alleged” in any way. In fact, it can be taken as (secular) gospel. We may be heathenish, but we’re pleased to bear good news. – The Ed.