Peoples Presbyterian Church was founded in June 1906 and is Denver’s oldest continuously active black Presbyterian congregation. In 1908 the congregation acquired its first permanent home at the former First Cumberland Presbyterian building a few blocks south of Five Points, which was then developing into the heart of Denver’s black community. In 1955, as Denver’s black population grew and expanded to the east, the church moved to a brick Mission-style building at the southeast corner of East Twenty-Eighth Avenue and York Street. The Mission-style church was originally built in 1921–22 by Hyde Park Presbyterian and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2016.
Describing itself as “a church for all peoples,” Peoples Presbyterian Church was established in June 1906 in a vacant room at the corner of Twenty-Fifth and Larimer Streets. It had sixty-six members and was the only black Presbyterian church in Denver at the time. One earlier black Presbyterian congregation had folded in the 1880s; most of the city’s black congregations tended to be either Baptist or Methodist.
Led by its first pastor, Reverend D. D. Cole, Peoples found a long-term home in 1908. That year it bought the former First Cumberland Presbyterian Church at East Twenty-Third Avenue and Washington Street, just south of the Five Points intersection. At the time, Five Points was well on its way to becoming Denver’s main black neighborhood. White congregations usually followed their members to new neighborhoods, allowing black congregations such as Peoples and Zion Baptist to acquire old church buildings in the area.
Yet Peoples faced serious problems soon after it moved to its new location. In 1909 its new pastor from North Carolina died after only two weeks on the job. The congregation was shrinking and it still faced a large debt from the purchase of the Five Points property. But that June, the arrival of a new pastor, Reverend Joseph Adolphus Thomas-Hazell, turned things around. In Thomas-Hazell’s thirteen years at the helm, Peoples’ membership more than doubled, putting the congregation on a solid footing by the early 1920s.
Growth and Change
After departing in 1922, Thomas-Hazell returned to lead the church again from 1943 to 1949, when its pastor took a leave of absence to serve as a chaplain during World War II. During those years, Denver’s black population experienced explosive growth, nearly doubling from about 7,800 in 1940 to about 15,200 in 1950. More than 90 percent of those black residents were concentrated in Five Points, which had expanded east to Race Street in Whittier. New black Presbyterian residents joined Peoples because most Presbyterian churches continued to be segregated in practice even though the Presbyterian General Assembly officially renounced segregation in 1946.
The church continued to grow throughout the 1950s, as Denver’s black population doubled again to more than 30,000 and continued to expand east into North City Park. It benefited from the 1951 relocation of the US Air Force Finance Center from St. Louis to a site in Denver near the church. St. Louis had a thriving black Presbyterian population, so the migration of black finance center workers brought an influx of new members to Peoples.
Soon Peoples was holding two Sunday morning services to accommodate its 500 members, who contributed enough that the church no longer needed any financial assistance from the Presbyterian Board of National Missions. Seeking more space, in 1955 the congregation acquired a larger building at the corner of East Twenty-Eighth Avenue and York Street, on the border between Whittier and North City Park. The next year, First Lady Mamie Doud Eisenhower, herself a Presbyterian, congratulated Peoples on its new home and its fiftieth anniversary.
New Home, Long History
Peoples’ new home already had a long history. The building was constructed in 1921–22 by Hyde Park Presbyterian Church, which was organized in 1889. It was the first Presbyterian congregation in northeast Denver. After several moves during its early years, Hyde Park found its first long-term home at the corner of East Thirty-Second Avenue and Humboldt Street in 1895. The congregation stayed there until the fall of 1920, when the church was destroyed by a fire. In 1921 the Hyde Park congregation bought a corner lot at East Twenty-Eighth Avenue and York Street. The cornerstone of the new building was laid on October 16, 1921, and the church was finished and dedicated the next year. The building was in a newly developing part of Denver known as Clayton’s Addition, so the Hyde Park congregation changed its name to Clayton Community Church.
The two-story church was designed in the Mission style, with brown brick and terra cotta tile accents against a mostly red brick exterior. Parapets rose from the rooflines facing west onto York Street and north onto East Twenty-Eighth Avenue. The main entrance opened onto York Street, where a brick porch with a hipped roof and a round arch led into the building. Inside, the sanctuary occupied the southern half of the building, while church offices, classrooms, and a fellowship hall filled the two floors on the building’s north side. The basement housed a dining hall and kitchen.
A fire in 1952 caused significant damage to the church’s interior, requiring the sanctuary to be remodeled and rededicated in 1953. Just two years later, however, the Denver Presbytery dissolved Clayton Community Church, and the building was acquired by Peoples Presbyterian.
In the decade after Peoples Presbyterian moved into the former Clayton Community building, older black neighborhoods like Five Points and Whittier experienced a series of transformative changes as new civil rights and fair housing policies expanded opportunities for minorities in Denver. Many middle-class black residents left for newer housing in better neighborhoods, and the area’s population declined by half from 1950 to 1970. The 1977 relocation of the US Air Force Finance Center to Lowry Air Force Base exacerbated prevailing trends. In response, Peoples launched new programs such as Feed the Hungry to serve the changing needs of its neighborhood while retaining existing members.
In 2016 the congregation celebrated its 110th anniversary and the church building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today Peoples continues to offer regular Sunday services as well as Sunday school, Bible study, youth fellowship, and film programs.