The congregation of Minnesota's first black church took a paddle-wheel ride up the Mississippi River Saturday to Fort Snelling, where freed slaves arrived in 1863 and soon founded Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul.

About 140 Pilgrim members and friends rode the Anson Northrup paddlewheeler from St. Paul, where the founding group once was turned away. But U.S. Army officials accepted the former slaves at Fort Snelling.

A worship service at the fort featured modern dance and prayers of rededication, said event chairwoman Victoria Davis. Members of the church's Cub and Boy Scout units also participated.

"Today was a homecoming ceremony," Davis said. "The idea is to rededicate ourselves to the work started by our founders."

The 147-year-old church's website cites one early account that says a group of slaves escaped from Missouri with help from the Union Army and the Underground Railroad. They were smuggled aboard the War Eagle paddle boat, which took them north. They called themselves pilgrims because they weren't sure where they were being taken.

Davis said Pilgrim Baptist's founding pastor, Robert Hickman, learned to read on a plantation and was allowed to preach to slaves there. Pilgrim Baptist went on to launch black mission churches in Minneapolis, Hastings and elsewhere, she said.

In St. Paul, Hickman worked to integrate blacks into white schools, she said, and was one of the first blacks to sit on a jury in the city.

Church leaders also helped start the local NAACP chapter in 1913, the St. Paul Urban League, and held plays and musicals about the black experience before theaters did so, she said.

"The weekend is to call attention to all the things people have accomplished in our rich history with a lot less than we have today," Davis said. "It's to challenge us to do the part that we have to do right now today."

The event will continue with a breakfast Sunday morning at the governor's residence.

Jim Adams • 612-673-7658