Pittsburgh's oldest Black church says reparations talks with Penguins have stalled | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh's oldest Black church says reparations talks with Penguins have stalled

click to enlarge Pittsburgh's oldest Black church says reparations talks with Penguins have stalled
Photo Courtesy Bethel AME Church
Bethel AME's original church building was demolished in 1957 amid sweeping development initiatives in the Lower Hill

Members and leaders of the Hill District’s historic Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church say negotiations with the Pittsburgh Penguins over the church’s possible return to the Lower Hill have stalled. This is the latest development in the church’s years-long effort to secure reparations for their forced displacement by the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 1957, when thousands of Black residents were pushed out of the community to build the Civic Arena.

During a press conference this morning, Reverend Dale B. Snyder said the church believes the hockey franchise is acting contrary to a tentative agreement made in September, which, according to reporting from PublicSource, would grant Bethel AME land and development rights to a parcel near its previous location.

But after commissioning an appraisal of the land in question, leaders from the church and the hockey franchise disagree on the viable options.

Snyder who was joined this morning by other faith leaders and representatives of the Pennsylvania Council of Churches said the Penguins claimed that the lots in question were under an overpass and therefore unable to be developed. But he disagrees.

“This is our lot. It’s not under a freeway, it’s not under a highway,” Snyder said, pointing to a location on the map. “We want our historical land that you agreed to give to us on Sept. 30 at the meeting at the Mayor’s office.”

Maria Montaño, spokesperson for Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey tells Pittsburgh City Paper in an email that the Mayor’s office did convene a meeting between the parties this fall, but “do[es] not have the authority to negotiate these matters.”

In 1957, the Urban Redevelopment Authority invoked eminent domain to seize Bethel AME’s land in the Lower Hill District in order to build the Civic Arena. They gave the church a fraction of the property’s assessed value and razed the building along with 1,300 other buildings, including 8 houses of worship, which had been part of a vibrant center of Black life in Pittsburgh. Snyder estimates Bethel AME lost two-thirds of its membership along with its land as thousands of Black people were forced to relocate from the Hill District.

“We owned that land for a hundred-plus years before they took our building against our will,” Snyder said at today’s press conference.

Snyder tells NEXT Pittsburgh’s Tony Norman that he began pushing for reparations shortly after he became the church’s pastor in 2019 and has continued to advocate for his congregation as the Lower Hill District is once again poised for development. The Penguins hold the development rights and are working with the Buccini/Pollin Group to push a $1 billion redevelopment of the former Civic Arena site.

Bethel AME continues to demand the return of what had been their land and development rights along with an acknowledgment that it was wrongfully taken from them 75 years ago.

Kevin Acklin, the Penguin's president of business operations, says the franchise is not directly responsible for the plight of the displaced church community but is committed to working with its leadership in this latest round of development.

“While the Penguins came into existence over a decade after Bethel AME was relocated in the 1950s, we have been working, in good faith, with Bethel AME, the Mayor’s office and the public authorities to pursue a historic and restorative development opportunity together," Acklin writes in an email to Pittsburgh City Paper. "The original location of the former church has been confirmed, which is partially under the rebuilt road and unable to be developed. The Bethel community has asked that we find another parcel suitable for collaborative development, and we have additional meetings being scheduled with him and the Mayor’s office to discuss.”