upper waypoint

After Devastating Fire, Landmark Black Church in Oakland Perseveres

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

An African American man wearing a light grey sweater vest stands outside a building with a sign that reads "First African Methodist Episcopal Church."
Pastor Rodney Smith stands outside the burned remains of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Oakland on March 9. A fire ripped through the building on Feb. 19. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

O

n the night of Sunday, Feb. 19, Pastor Rodney D. Smith of Oakland’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church, known as FAME, was at home when he received an unusual call from one of the church officers — that the door alarms of the church were going off and needed to be checked.

"When one alarm goes off, the church officers don't usually call me,” said Smith. "But in this particular case ... all of the doors in the church were reporting that something was wrong."

Concerned, Smith got in his car and headed over. As he drove on the I-580, he could see smoke billowing in the distance. As he got closer to the church, he got an awkward feeling that the smoke was related. His fears were soon confirmed as he pulled into the parking lot and saw dozens of firefighters rushing to put out a fire that was engulfing the upper section of FAME while others surrounded the area with yellow tape to keep people away from the blaze.

"I was just in disbelief," recalled Smith. "It's almost like a dream. Like you couldn't believe what you're seeing."

The three-alarm fire raged until early the next morning, gutting the building. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, according to Oakland Fire Department spokesperson Michael Hunt and officials from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Smith, who became FAME’s lead pastor in 2020, said he's still waiting for insurance companies to make their final report and learn the full scope of the damage to the building.

A Black man with salt-and-pepper hair and a full beard wearing a light grey cardigan stands outside a building with a fence behind him.
Pastor Smith stands outside the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Oakland on March 9, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A GoFundMe was launched with a goal of $1 million, and Smith says there may be additional fundraising efforts once the exact costs of rebuilding can be determined. The church previously suffered damages during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

"Just from what I see, I would probably think we're going to be out at least a minimum of two years," said Smith. "And then when you start rebuilding or refurbishing, that could be a whole nother year for that process."

A living part of Oakland history

FAME’s history is woven into the fabric of Oakland’s culture from the institution’s earliest days. Located at Telegraph Avenue at 37th Street in North Oakland, FAME is the oldest Black church in the East Bay and was founded in 1858 as Shiloh African Methodist Episcopal Church by a small group of Black residents.

It was originally located on Fifth Street and structured as a mission in the home of one of the members. According to Barbara Freeman, a lifelong member of FAME and the church’s historian, the founding members purchased a schoolhouse on Fourth and Clay streets five years later from Horace Walpole Carpentier, Oakland's first mayor. According to records from the African American Museum and Library at Oakland, during this time the schoolhouse — which became the church’s first building — served as a meeting place for the Black community where social and political organizations held festivals and events.

Sponsored

The church also began running the first school for children of color in Oakland at a time when only white children could attend public schools in California. Informal schoolhouses had formed earlier as a result of segregation — Elizabeth Flood, one of the church's founding members, started the first version of the school in her home on East 15th Street in 1857.

An article from Pacific Appeal newspaper documented in 1871 that Isaac Flood, Elizabeth’s husband, petitioned the Oakland School Board to accept Black children, following the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments. Oakland public schools were integrated in 1872, and eight years later, in 1880, the integration of schools in California was made into law (PDF).

After a series of church members and local pastors held services, Jeremiah Sanderson was appointed FAME's first minister in 1874.

Ten years later, the church moved to a larger location on 15th Street between Market and West streets and became known as Fifteenth Street Church.

An archival photo of a large group of African American men, women, and children standing in front of a building.
An archival photo from 1953 shows a congregation posed in front of one of the church's former locations, on 15th Street between Market and West streets. It was known as Fifteenth Street Church at the time. (Courtesy of African American Museum & Library at Oakland Photograph Collection)

Freeman, the church historian, says FAME's legacy is distinguished and impossible to leave out when discussing the culture of Oakland.

“It is not surprising and fills me with pride that FAME established the first school in Oakland to teach Black children,” said Freeman. “The Fifteenth Street Church made a significant impact in the community. FAME recognizes in order to have a thriving community, the church must be the anchor.”

It wasn't until 1954, under the leadership of Rev. H. Solomon Hill, that the church moved to its present location and became First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

An archival photo of a scrapbook cover with blue lettering and image of a building with a cross diagonally in the background.
An archival photo of a Relocation Services scrapbook cover at FAME church, circa 1958. (Courtesy of African American Museum & Library at Oakland Photograph Collection)

“FAME, for more than 160 years, has been an integral part of Oakland and has been involved in helping it develop into the kind of community that is recognized across the country," said Rev. Dr. Harold R. Mayberry, presiding elder and former pastor of FAME. "So over the past several years, we've had a big shoe giveaway at the [Oakland] Coliseum. And for FAME to have given away over 10,000 new shoes by partnering with the community to share in that kind of effort, it speaks to FAME's ability to generate the kind of relationships necessary to make things happen in this community."

According to Irma Lastra, a lifelong member of FAME and frequent volunteer, the shoe program was started years ago as an annual giveaway of 500 pairs of shoes and grew from there.

“It was an awesome experience and thousands of people would attend,” Lastra recalled. “We also have Tent City, which is the outreach where we would go to the different tent cities and bless them with different things. We would pray with them, sing happy birthday and were very personable, hands on. We assist people and pay their bills, their rent, whatever the need is.”

A distinguished middle-aged Black man wearing a blue collared shirt and blue jacket sits in a well-lit living room, his eyes looking into the distance
Rev. Harold Mayberry, presiding elder and former pastor of FAME, at his home in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

FAME’s numerous community service and outreach programs include an extensive feeding ministry, operating three times a week and providing hot meals to unhoused members of the community. The food programs were in service during the peak of the pandemic as well, and Smith is in discussions with other congregations to use their kitchen facilities to continue operations. Under Mayberry’s leadership in 1996, the church began a prison ministry, computer training program, travel ministry, free income tax return assistance, and a weekly radio broadcast program on KDIA 1640 AM.

According to Freeman, the church has a long history of working with local government to help alleviate social ills plaguing the community.

“In 1987, Dr. Frederick O. Murph, former pastor of the FAME, was named chairperson of Mayor Lionel J. Wilson’s hunger task force,” said Freeman. “This task force was formed in response to a study that identified hunger as a growing problem. The study found that approximately 100,000 people in Oakland were at risk for hunger.”

As part of the Season of Caring program, last December, the church chartered a bus to pick up unhoused community members in the nearby area, giving them dress clothes and taking them to Scott's Seafood Grill & Bar for a private dining experience.

An African American woman wearing a pink jumpsuit stands with both hands raised among several people who are seated in a building.
Debra Chambers, 56, bows her head during FAME's Sunday service, temporarily held at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, on March 12. Chambers said she had been part of the church for over 20 years. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

Since the devastating fire, there has been an outpouring of support from local leadership, community members and religious institutions.

“I was told as a child you know who your real friends are when a crisis strikes, and FAME has discovered that there are real friends in the community who have stepped up to the plate to say, we are family," said Mayberry.

The congregation held service a week later at Temple Beth Abraham synagogue, which will serve as a temporary home.

A group of African American men and women stand with their hands raised and clapping as a man holds a microphone to the left.
Rev. Amittia Smith closes her eyes as her husband, Pastor Rodney Smith, speaks during the First African Methodist Episcopal Church congregation's Sunday service at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland on March 12. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee was in attendance for the service, and offered to look into resources to help the church. Oakland Mayor Sheng Thao’s office reached out to Smith to offer support as well.

“I call FAME America's church because I personally believe that everybody who loves this town, everybody who loves the Bay Area, is going to play a part in rebuilding because of its history,” said Smith.

Sponsored

lower waypoint
next waypoint
Paleontologists Discover 240-Million-Year-Old 'Dragon' Fossil in Full'Everybody Is Just Scrambling': Nationwide Cyber Attack Delays Bay Area Pharmacy OrdersMacy's to Close Flagship San Francisco Union Square StoreCrowds (and Dragons) Pack Chinatown for San Francisco's Chinese New Year ParadePerformance Reviews are Underperforming. What Should Replace Them?Proposition A: Why SF Is Asking Voters For a $300 Million Affordable Housing BondA Growing ‘Right to Repair’ Culture in CaliforniaCharles Duhigg's “Supercommunicators” Breaks Down How to Talk Better and Forge ConnectionsHow to Correct a Mistake on Your Ballot for the 2024 California Primary ElectionTommy Orange’s ‘Wandering Stars’ Examines the Legacy and Consequences of Cultural Erasure