Black Bottom House of Prayer
921 Bentley Street
“The individual and collective memory of the African-American community is rooted in its churches,” declared Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in 1996, when he added all of the black churches of the South to the Trust’s annual list of most-endangered places.
Many of Orlando’s historic black churches had disappeared or fallen into disrepair by 1996, as diminishing congregations disbanded, and others relocated to new African American communities made possible by integration, leaving behind the structures they worked so hard to build. New congregations moved into some of the abandoned churches, and some congregations stayed, struggling to maintain their aging edifices. The old buildings hold memories for their former parishioners and for the community as a whole, and their survival provides an important connection with the past. From baptisms, weddings, and funerals, to the Civil Rights Movement, the churches centered African American life.
The church at the corner of Westmoreland Drive and Bentley Street has stood for nearly a century in what was once “Black Bottom,” part of the African American neighborhood of Parramore. Its first congregation, the Pleasant Hill Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, originated in 1916, when three families left the Community Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in the African American community of Jonestown, on Orlando’s east side, and organized Pleasant Hill in Black Bottom, west of the city. They first met under a tree at the corner of Reel and West Washington Streets, now Westmoreland Drive and Polk Streets, and endeavored through most of the 1920s to build the lovely old church at 921 Bentley Street.
In 1920, the congregation borrowed money from Moses and Ethylene Overstreet to purchase property for a church, and that same year they bought a site on West Washington or Veach Street. From about 1921 until 1925, the Pleasant Hill CME congregation occupied a small frame building with no heat or lights at 1000 West Washington Street, now 1202 Polk Street.
In 1923, Pleasant Hill paid Moses Overstreet $225 for property at 921 Bentley Street, in the Overstreets’ Sunset Subdivision, Lot 7, Block B. That same year they took out a building permit for a one-story church to cost $4,500. In 1924 they borrowed $110 from charter member, Mamie Moore, which they repaid the following year. Also in 1925, the church sold the property on West Washington Street and entered into a stock agreement with the Orange County Building and Loan Association, agreeing to purchase thirty shares of stock at $100 a share, for a total of $3000.
During 1926 and 1927, the Pleasant Hill choir held several popular concerts and entertainments for whites and blacks, asking for a freewill offering to help raise the remaining $3000 needed to complete construction of the church. They laid the church cornerstone in 1927, after four years of planning and three years of construction. The congregation pushed forward with the building as finances permitted, and one member recalled the women of the church holding lanterns for the men working on the church construction in the dark after their day’s work on their regular jobs. They expected the completed church to represent an investment of approximately $29,000.
The Pleasant Hill CME congregation changed its name to Carter Tabernacle Colored Methodist Church in 1927, to honor CME Bishop Randall Albert Carter. In 1928 they took out a $500 building permit to complete the church, and the Carter Tabernacle congregation moved into its new sanctuary at 921 Bentley Street. By 1935 the congregation numbered about three hundred, and in 1945 the church added a Sunday School Annex.
The Pleasant Hill/Carter Tabernacle congregation organized and built their church during an especially difficult time, as racial segregation became more institutionalized and increasingly oppressive. Restricted in almost every way, African Americans found safety in the separate world they created. The communities they built, complete with their own schools, churches, businesses, and associations, made their survival possible and fostered the development of a distinct African American culture. The leadership came from the churches and the community itself, rather than from politicians. By the mid-1950s, the Negro Chamber of Commerce found more than fifteen churches in the black community.
Suggesting changes to come, the national CME denomination replaced the word “colored,” in 1954, changing its name to become the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. The churches continued their role of extended family during the Civil Rights movement. By 1960 the young activists vowed that it would be “this generation or never,” and the powerful leaders in the black community, the ministers, physicians, and businessmen stood behind them. Carter Tabernacle members marched, some joined “sit-ins” at lunch counters, and many achieved “firsts” for the African American community in employment and the professions. The steadying influence of churches and families kept Parramore calm through the demonstrations and sit-ins. Prayer meetings and planning sessions took place in the churches.
Integration brought a mixed blessing, and in 1976, as government buildings and sports venues encroached on the black neighborhood, the Carter Tabernacle congregation left Parramore for a new church in Washington Shores. Mindful of their past in Black Bottom, the congregation published a history of the then-ninety-year-old church in 2006.
A new congregation found a home in the old Carter Tabernacle in 2014, and in respect to the building’s past, they gave it the name Black Bottom House of Prayer. Once again, the old church will act as extended family for those in need of assistance or just a steadying influence.
Tana Mosier Porter 2019