Churches Named for Black Women:
Ariel Serena Hedges Bowen and Mattie R Coleman
As the world battles the deadly Covid-19 virus, many people find themselves in search of a spiritual connection. Those who believe in God and the church do so with a hope and faith that they never have done before. Let us look at church buildings and the names that they have been given. They are named for biblical characters, biblical sites, men, numbers, and streets. There are such names as our own Clark Memorial, St. Paul, St. John, Mt. Zion, 1st Baptist Church, 2nd Baptist Church, and even Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Church on 9th. But what about churches named for black women?
Some years ago forward-thinking black people recognized two black women who deserved public recognition and named a church for each of them—Ariel Serena Hedges Bowen and Mattie Eliza Howard Coleman.
Ariel Bowen was a multi-talented woman who became an organizer of black women’s organizations in the church and the community. She was a vocalist, pianist, organist, writer, and public speaker, and became known as one of the most cultured black women of her time. Her father, a Presbyterian minister moved his family from Newark, New Jersey to Baltimore, and Ariel later moved to Atlanta. She married John Wesley E. Bowen Sr., who became a minister, and shared in his pastoral duties at St. John’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Newark and later at Centennial Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. They moved to Atlanta in 1893, where John Wesley Bowen became the first black president of Gammon Theological Seminary.
Ariel Bowen became professor of Music at Clark University in Atlanta, organized a Woman’s Home Missionary Society, was active in temperance work, missionary work, and in many phases of the church. She organized and advanced many mothers’ clubs, young women’s societies, and was a member of the Georgia Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. She lectured widely on moral and social reform. Bowen emphasized the black woman’s role in improving the black individual, whether female or male, and saw the hope for the race’s future in black youth. Bowen was a woman of resolute firmness who would not compromise principle for worldly expedience. Called a noble woman, Ariel Bowen demonstrated a commitment to service throughout her short life in the variety of ways in which she worked. The Ariel Bowen Memorial United Methodist Church, located in Atlanta, is named in her honor.
We also celebrate Mattie Eliza Howard Coleman, a physician, missionary, school administrator, activist, lecturer, feminist, and suffragist. She was born in Sumner County, Tennessee, and graduated from the old Central Tennessee College
(later known as Walden University) and Meharry Medical College. Coleman received her medical degree from Meharry in 1906 and a second degree from Meharry in 1932, becoming the first graduate of its dental hygiene program. She became one of Tennessee’s first black woman doctors and one of a group of religious feminists who agitated for women’s rights within the Colored Methodist Episcopal CME Church, as that church was first known. A highly visible and influential woman in the CME Church, she was founding president of its Woman’s Missionary Council. Coleman became known as well for her work on behalf of women’s suffrage, and played a large part in getting over 2,000 black women to vote in the 1919 municipal elections in Nashville. She worked with other black women in the suffrage movement, including Frankie Pierce, whose life we have celebrated in our Black History Moment presentations. Both Coleman and Pierce became superintendent of the Tennessee Vocational School for Girls.
Although she was highly active in the church, Coleman was diligent in her medical practice and very involved in civic and social work. She gave medical attention to children and indigents. She provided food, clothing, and shelter for the homeless. She aided in the establishment of Nashville’s Bethlehem Center in 1894. The work of Mattie E. Coleman is important to the history of women in medicine, the history of black women in the church, and the history of women’s rights. The Mattie E. Coleman Memorial CME Church, located in Knoxville, was established in her honor.
Let us celebrate Ariel Serena Hedges Bowen and Mattie Eliza Howard Coleman, their important work for the race, in the church, and for being honored with a church established in their honor.