July 17, 1791 marked the groundbreaking for the church at Sixth and Lombard streets in Philadelphia now known as Mother Bethel, the first African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is the oldest piece of land in the United States continuously owned by African Americans, and the basement of the church served as a station in the Underground Railroad. The first African American Boy Scout Troop was founded there, as was the second Prince Hall Masonic Lodge. The current building (pictured right) was built in 1909. A museum is housed in its lower floor.
The founder of the A.M.E. denomination was Richard Allen, a former slave, who attended Methodist Society meetings from childhood and began preaching at the age of 17. He bought his freedom three years later for $2000 and in 1786 at the age of 26 was hired to preach at St. George's Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. The congregation was interracial, which was common at the time, but seating was separate and Allen was scheduled to lead a 5:00 AM service. Church membership grew, and the building was remodeled to include a balcony which neither he nor Absalom Jones, a lay preacher, knew was for the African American members. When Allen and Jones entered the church on the first Sunday after the balcony was opened in November 1787 they went to their usual seats but were asked to leave as they knelt to pray. They refused to leave until they had finished praying, and Jones described the incident saying,
"By this time the prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued by us in the church."
Relationships became strained between Bethel and both St George's and the Methodist denomination, and in 1816 Allen called together representatives of other African American congregations to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church.