Burns United Methodist Church (UMC) in Des Moines, Polk County, Iowa, is the oldest still-operating historically African American congregation in the state of Iowa. It was originally organized in 1866 as the Black Methodist Episcopal Church of Iowa, during a decade in which there were fewer than two dozen black residents of Polk County. After the Civil War, northern Methodists attempted to organize blacks, both free from birth and newly free, into Methodist congregations. It later changed its name to commemorate Francis Burns (1809-1863), the first African American bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church.
The congregation has met at many different locations over the course of its existence. Upon its founding, it first met in the same building as the city’s segregated school for black children. In 1873, the church built a small chapel, and then relocated to a larger building on East Second and Maple Street in the 1880s. In 1903, it constructed a new church building at Twelfth and Crocker Streets.
In the 1920s, the congregation arranged to purchase the building owned by the Crocker Hill Methodist Church at 811 Crocker Street for $7,000. A fire in 1947 badly damaged this building, but the church was restored. In 2011, the congregation moved into the building formerly occupied by Gatchel United Methodist Church, at 1909 Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway in Des Moines.
At all of these locations, the church offered Sunday school, sponsored literary societies and musical programs, and hosted charitable activities.
Charline J. Barnes and Floyd Bumpers, Iowa’s Black Legacy (Chicago: Lincoln Publishing, 2000); Nancy Curtis, Black Heritage Sites: An African American Odyssey and Finder’s Guide (Chicago: American Library Association, 1996).
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