In the shadow of Lincoln University – one of Pennsylvania’s four “state affiliated” universities (its fellows being Pitt, Temple, and Penn State) – can be found the small and stoic Hosanna AUMP Church. One pragmatic story tall, with a grand total of eight windows on four sides, the modest footprint of Hosanna belies its cultural significance, yet remains unevaluated for inclusion in the National Register.
Hosanna Church, which was established in 1843, and completed by 1845, is the last architectural remnant of the village of Hinsonville, a free black community founded in antebellum Chester County, Pennsylvania.
The acres that would later become Hinsonville were first purchased in 1829 by a free black man named Edward Walls, who was born in Maryland. The first permanent dweller of the area was another free black man from Maryland, Emory Hinson, who was the ultimate namesake for the village that would emerge a mere six miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line. This location ideally situated the community to flourish with the influx free black men and their families who sought to escape the restrictive legislation enacted upon African-Americans in Maryland throughout the 1820s, 1830s, and 1850s. Hinsonville, historically located at the crossroads of Russellville-Elkdale Road and Oxford-Jennersville Road in the southern tip of Upper Oxford Township, developed as an agricultural community rife with independent sentiment.
The establishment of Hosanna Church is interminably tied to the experiences of the free black population in antebellum Pennsylvania. In the book Hinsonville, A Community at the Crossroads: The Story of a Nineteenth Century African-American Village, author Marianne Russo writes, “[The] northern attitudes of whites paralleled southern attitudes… Blacks were excluded by law and by custom from steamers, trolley cars, railroads, hotels, restaurants, and much else. They were not welcome in most churches, even Quaker meeting houses, although in some they were relegated to balconies or special benches that set them apart from the white congregation. The humiliation and outrage wrought by the various forms of discrimination led to the gradual establishment by blacks themselves of separate institutions, in particular their own churches, which soon shaped the core of their lives.”[i]
In this way, Hosanna is a representative mid-nineteenth century example of the movement towards independent African churches in the northeastern United States that had begun in the half century after the Revolutionary War as part of the Second Great Awakening. Hosanna Church began life associated to the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) movement, which was born of the Free Africa Society in Philadelphia in the late 1780s, and at one point or another found itself denominated as all of the main branches of the African Methodist movement: AME, AMEZ (African Methodist Episcopal Zion), and, finally, AUMP (African Union Methodist Protestant.) In conjunction with the historical significance of this larger African religious movement, Hosanna also exists as a monument to the tenacity of the local free black men and women who settled antebellum Pennsylvania. Russo writes, “The Hosanna Church quickly became more than just a place of worship. Like black churches elsewhere, past and present, it became the pivotal institution in the community, both inspiring and empowering its members.”[ii] Wuanda M. T. Walls, in the article “Grandfather’s Stories, Freedom, and the Hosanna Church,” which was published in Chester County Town and Country Living in the spring of 2001, speaks of the way that Hosanna emerged as the thriving village center of Hinsonville for a diverse variety of social gatherings, in addition to its religious services, weddings, and funerals.[iii]
The development of the Hosanna Church is a reflection of the triumphs of free black settlements in the achievement of agency in the antebellum northeastern United States. Furthermore, Hosanna’s continued existence and significance to the local community – the descendants of Hinsonville settlers, a number of whom maintain residency in the local community, still annually meet at the church to celebrate the successes of their free black ancestors – is relatively unique throughout the United States. Although dozens of free black towns and villages sprung up in the Northern and Western portions of the antebellum and Reconstruction-era United States, shockingly few still boast architectural resources for study – and many exist only from an archaeological perspective.
Hinsonville is also unique because it holds the distinction of being consumed by the product of its own ambition, rather than having disappeared due to decay. Lincoln University, the oldest historically black university in the United States, was first established in 1854 as the Ashmun Institute, a degree granting institution of higher learning. Ashmun Institute was a seminary supported by the original residents of Hinsonville to provide theological education to the young men of Hosanna Church. With the success of the Ashmun (which was renamed Lincoln University in 1866), the university campus expanded into the space that was occupied by Hinsonville. The small community that now surrounds the university is known as Lincoln University Village.
Although ultimately consumed by the growth of Lincoln University, the story of Hinsonville continues to exist through Hosanna Church. In addition to its apparent rarity as an extant remnant of a settlement founded by free black citizens in antebellum North America, the history of the little church connects it with giants of American history. These giants include such esteemed Lincoln University graduates as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, as well as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, Abolitionist leaders who decried slavery from the pulpit of Hosanna, and Harriet Tubman, who “conducted one or more of her famous Underground Railroad Trains along the [Hinsonville] ‘line’”[iv] on which Hosanna Church was included as a station.
Modest and unadorned, the square-footage and simplicity of Hosanna Church provide an intimate and uncommon perspective into a portion of the American experience that is often discussed but rarely seen in person. The Hosanna Church, which has not been surveyed or listed to date, is undoubtedly one of Pennsylvania’s resources of historical and cultural significance.
Elizabeth Shultz is a May 2014 graduate of Lock Haven University with a degree in Public History, and will attend Tulane University’s School of Architecture in the fall of 2014 to commence graduate studies in Historic Preservation. She is currently a THIS (The Harrisburg Internship Semester) intern in the Bureau for Historic Preservation.
[i] Marianne Russo, Hinsonville, A Community at the Crossroads: The Story of a Nineteenth-Century African-American Village (Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna UP, 2005), 13-14.
[ii] Marianne Russo, Hinsonville, A Community at the Crossroads: The Story of a Nineteenth-Century African-American Village (Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna UP, 2005), 50.
[iii] Wuanda M. T. Walls, “Grandfather’s Stories, Freedom, and Hosanna Church,” Chester County Town and Country Living, 48.
[iv] Horace Mann Bond, Education for Freedom: A History of Lincoln University, Pennsylvania (Lincoln University, PA: Lincoln UP, 1976), 225.