From humble beginnings to being recognized as a Michigan Historic Site, Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Port Huron is a community monument that speaks of a rich and storied past of years gone by.
According to Anita Ashford, Shiloh member and chairperson, the church's history can be traced back to the 1800s.
“At the South Park Baptist church, there was a white Caucasian pastor by the name of Reverend Arthur Chasey who ran a church out of his home. He was allowing the Black, or colored people at that time, to come and have service in his basement,” says Ashford.
Sometime around 1917 the business district in South Park, one of the first black neighborhoods in the city of Port Huron, started to develop and expand, and many Blacks began to migrate north from southern states such as Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama to take up residence in the area. Here they would find employment at the newly opened Holmes Foundry to start a better life for their families and themselves. While on his way traveling to the National Baptist Convention in Chicago, there was a Reverend from Birmingham, Alabama, named T.W. Walker, who stopped in Port Huron to visit former members of his church.
During his visit he discovered that they didn't have a church of their own.
“He thought it was abominable that they were conducting church out of the basement of someone's home,” Ashford says.
So it was then that Walker set out to help them organize to get their own church. He promised to return but never made it back for reasons that remain unknown. On Sept. 28, 1918, after Rev. Arthur Chasey organized with his officers, a new church was established. It originally went by the name First Shiloh Colored Baptist Church with Rev. Chasey as the acting pastor until they could secure another to take his place. The church later changed its name to Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, which was also the name of the church in Birmingham where Rev. Walker was pastor.
In the early 1920s the current building that Shiloh occupies was purchased from the previous owners for $5,000. Since then, Shiloh has often been referred to as the “Mother Church” as it was the first black owned and operated church in Port Huron at the time. Over time members began to break away and start up churches of their own. Some of the churches formed are local and still in operation today such as the Metropolitan Baptist Church, St. Paul AME, and Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church.
The history of Shiloh would be incomplete if the late Rev. John Lawrence Portis wasn't mentioned. Although Shiloh has seen many great men and women come and go over the years, none has seemed to stand out and contribute to its rich history as much as the late Rev. Portis. Described as a humble, diligent, and faithful man, Rev. Portis became the youngest pastor to lead Shiloh in its history. Rev. Portis stepped into the position on Oct. 29, 1967, and served his church and community for 40 years and nine months prior to his passing on July 19, 2008.
Yvonne Malachi, member and Shiloh historian, says, “We had pastors coming and going. When he finally came he stayed with us for quite some time. Everybody knew him. He was involved with the community.”
Rev. Portis, a man who loved his community as much as he loved his church and its members, was so influential and well respected in the city and surrounding areas that the street in front of the church bears his namesake. In 1999, Nern Street, where it intersects at 28th Street, was renamed John L. Portis Drive in honor of the late reverend Portis.
“We got our 501(c)(3) status when he actually grouped all the Black churches together; they call it the South Park Ministerial Alliance,” which he founded and was President for over 20 years, says Ashford. “His passing deeply affected the church and the community as a whole.”
Many people have come through the doors of Shiloh, some who are not well known and others who are. Others have been prominent leaders, politicians, and athletes. Shiloh has been responsible for sponsoring scholarships for high school seniors and continuing education students. It once operated as a food pantry for those who were less fortunate. People could get a warm meal as well as items to take home if needed. Shiloh participated in the historic “Second Span” of the Blue Water Bridge opening, as well as being a contributor in the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance program locally, and has received a host of recognition awards and plaques from the city of Port Huron and the State of Michigan.
Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church almost seems to be alive, its own entity even, but it is merely brick and mortar at the end of the day. It's the people within the church who make it come alive, who are, in a sense, the heartbeat and the lifeblood of it all. Moving as a collective to bring forth life to itself as well as life to all they come in contact with over the years.
With over a century’s worth of history — Shiloh will be 103 years old this year — the stories are numerous. The lives that have been impacted and shaped by the presence of this historic landmark are countless. The community of South Park, and the city of Port Huron in general, would likely be a lot different had it not been for the men and women who have and continue to pass through the doors of Shiloh.
Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church is located at 2801 John L. Portis Dr. in Port Huron.