Civil Rights Tour: Civic Activism - St. Stephen's Church, Demanding Racial Justice

1525 Newton Street NW

Built in the 1920s to serve white residents of Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant, St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in 1957 became the first church of the Washington Episcopal Diocese to integrate its congregation. The St. Stephen's congregants who supported this decision stayed in the neighborhood and embraced its increasingly Black population at a time when most white churches and their congregants fled. With Rev. William (Bill) Wendt’s appointment to lead St. Stephen's in 1960, he and the the congregation made racial justice central to its mission.

Rev. Wendt joined the Freedom Riders in 1961 and led a delegation of DC clergy, including the former assistant minister of All Soul’s Unitarian Church, James Reeb, to march from Selma to Montgomery with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965. As uprisings broke out in cities across the country two years later, Rev. Wendt hosted a black power rally at St. Stephen's, where Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chair H. Rap Brown spoke before an audience of 900 people. On April 4, 1968, just hours after Dr. King was shot down in Memphis, St. Stephen's became the first DC church to hold a requiem eucharist (a ceremony honoring the dead) for the civil rights leader.

During the 1970s, the congregation tore down its parish house to devote all of the land surrounding the church building to affordable housing. The 72-unit Urban Village Apartments on either side of and behind the church opened in 1978 and remains accessible to low-income residents.