By Stanley Campbell
A civil rights leader from Rockford in the 1980s just died, I am sorry to report.
Bishop Edsel A. Ammons, who prior to becoming bishop, served in the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, died on Christmas Eve, Friday, Dec. 24, 2010. He was 86 years old.
He was director of what was then called “Urban Works” in Rockford, my predecessor (I am the director of Rockford Urban Ministries, a social justice outreach of 20 United Methodist and five other churches). This is a short history of what I could glean from the very skimpy records we kept from the early days of “Urban Works” in Rockford:
Rockford Urban Ministries was started back in 1962 as a way of getting the church involved in the nascent civil rights movement of the area, and encouraging mission and ministry outreach.
The then-head of the Methodist Episcopal District (which went on to become the United Methodists) wanted to bring a very vocal African-American pastor named Edsel Ammons to Rockford. Edsel could “shake the rafters” while preaching, but at the time, there was no congregation that wanted to accept him as their pastor. So the district superintendent created Rockford Urban Ministries and placed the Rev. Ammons as director.
I spoke to the Rev. Ammons when he came here to celebrate the 25th anniversary. Edsel said he just shuffled papers for the first few weeks, but then went out into the community and did many interviews, trying to investigate where the church was most needed. The RUM secretary at the time says she didn’t see him for two months, and everyone was wondering if they’d lost him.
Ammons set up programs to encourage the races to get to know one another. One idea was to invite the white and black communities to get people together in living rooms, over a dinner table, at prayer meetings, and in churches. Edsel also encouraged the Rockford City Council to re-gerrymander the southwest corner of Rockford so the black population could elect an alderman, giving them a voice.
At the time, the ward lines were drawn right down the middle of the then-ostracized “Negro” community, ensuring they would not muster enough votes to elect a black alderman. Edsel encouraged the churches to lobby the city to re-draw the lines encircling most of the black neighborhoods. Victory Bell then became the first black elected alderman.
When I was hired in 1985 as the director of Rockford Urban Ministries, some of the older Baptist ministers told me RUM “laid the foundation” for the election of Mayor Charles Box, the first African-American to hold that position. I knew then that I had big shoes to fill.
Edsel Ammons went on to become bishop of Detroit. He retired, lived in the Chicago area, and was considered quite an expert on urban ministry.
During his ministry, he served Chicago United Methodist churches in Whitfield and Ingleside and was on the Northern Illinois Conference program staff, and was a professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
A memorial service will be held Saturday, Jan. 15, at 11 a.m. at First United Methodist Church, 516 Church St., Evanston, Ill. Messages of condolence may be sent to his wife: Mrs. Helen Ammons, 1516 Hinman Ave., Apt. 201, Evanston, IL 60201.
Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.
From the Jan. 12-18, 2011 issue