The Seventeenth Street Mission
In 1911, Murray Grey and other students from Union Theological Seminary in Virginia (later, Union Presbyterian Seminary) started an urban ministry outreach program in Shockoe Bottom, the most impoverished neighborhood of Richmond, Va. The area suffered from unpaved streets, inadequate sewage facilities, and criminal activity. Residents of Shockoe Bottom lived in overcrowded dilapidated houses (Shepherd, 2011).
The Seventeenth Street Mission functioned as a settlement house, offering laundry facilities and showers, meals, a clothing closet, and vocational classes in sewing, carpentry and other skills (Union Presbyterian Seminary Library, 2017). A playground was added to the facility, along with a small library. In time, hundreds of Richmond African Americans would attend activities at the mission (Shepherd, 2001).
In addition to vocational classes, the Seventeenth Street Mission conducted worship services, and weekly prayer meetings. (Shepherd, 2001). The Sunday School program focused on the memorization of Bible verses, catechisms and the Lord’s Prayer. In 1914, students from the General Assembly’s Training School (later, the Presbyterian School of Christian Education) joined in as teachers and volunteers, and the effort became largely staffed by women who assisted the on-site superintendents (Union Presbyterian Seminary Library, 2017).
The mission looked in part to the work of the Rev. John Little for inspiration and instruction. Little, who directed especially successful settlement houses serving African Americans in Louisville, Ky., visited the Seventeenth Street Mission on April 11, 1915.
The Seventeenth Street Mission was the developed and staffed by white Presbyterians as a mission to African Americans. During the week, the mission’s workers would carry out home visitation, at times taking with them much needed food, medicine, and clothing. In most situations though, racial segregation was both law and custom in Virginia. In 1928, the superintendent of the mission, Robert Wray, acting on his conviction that racial discrimination was contrary to Christian teaching, resigned from his position. Wray wrote in a statement, “After much observation, study, thought, and prayer”… all people “black or white” “are my brothers and sisters.” Recognizing the realities of racially segregated society, and knowing that the church would withdraw financial support from the mission if he should act on that belief, Wray chose to leave (Shepherd, 2011).
In 1946, Elinor Curry of the Ginter Park Presbyterian Church became the director of the Mission. In 1952 the Eastminster Presbyterian Church was organized nearby, and in 1963 the Seventeenth Street Mission building was demolished and its ministry operated through the Eastminster Church. (Union Presbyterian Seminary Library, 2017).
Cothran Goddin Smith. “The Seventeenth Street Mission.” Union Seminary Review: A Presbyterian Quarterly. Volume 33: No.4 (July 1922). 317-326.
Shepherd, S. C. (2001). Avenues of faith : shaping the urban religious culture of Richmond, Virginia, 1900-1929. Tuscaloosa, Ala. : University of Alabama Press. 213-219.
Union Presbyterian Seminary Library (2017). “Seventeenth Street Mission.” Digital collection.
For further reading:
Gaines, Miriam (1933). The John Little Missions of Louisville, Kentucky. Southern Workman, LXII (April), 161-170.
Little, John (1909) The Presbyterian Colored Missions. Louisville.
Report on housing and living conditions in the neglected sections of Richmond, Virginia, (1913). Prepared by Gustavus A. Weber, secretary Society for the Betterment of Housing and Living Conditions in Richmond.
Resources related to this topic may be found in the Social Welfare History Image Portal.