Beaten down and desperate for freedom, escaping slaves paddled a wooden raft up the Mississippi River from Missouri.

The treacherous trip in 1863 at the height of the Civil War eventually landed them in St. Paul, where they would start new lives and establish Minnesota's first African-American church.

Their story echoes today in the pews and the people of Pilgrim Baptist Church — including descendants of those escapees. At its 150th anniversary events next weekend, Pilgrim Baptist will celebrate its growth from a small group of followers with an uncertain future into one of the most prominent churches in Minnesota — home to a number of black leaders and a congregation with a long history of fighting for civil rights and other social justice issues.

"This church has had an awesome history," said Pilgrim's senior pastor Charles L. Gill. "It's gone through a lot of ups and downs, twists, turns. We're still here. We're still thriving."

The church's pastors and members were key builders of the Twin Cities black support system: local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1913, the National Urban League in 1923, and the Hallie Q. Brown Center in 1929, now known as the Martin Luther King Center.

In the 1950s, church leaders pushed for a public school in the community: today's Maxfield Elementary. In the 1960s, when the Interstate 94 corridor plowed through the Rondo neighborhood, Pastor Floyd Massey Jr. and the congregation fought to preserve neighborhood connections, which resulted in a number of pedestrian bridges spanning the highway. In the '70s, the church pushed for another school, today's Benjamin E. Mays.

"I don't think you can overstate the meaning of Pilgrim to this community — the African-American community, but by extension the larger community, too, because Pilgrim is one of the state of Minnesota's oldest institutions," said Mahmoud El-Kati, professor emeritus of African-American history at Macalester College in St. Paul.

"The black church has been the epicenter of black people's culture. Pilgrim has played that role in this community in no small way. The founding of it is a heroic story. Pilgrim is a wonderful institution that's seen practically the whole history of black growth in Minnesota."

'Pilgrims' land in St. Paul

The story of the church goes back to Boone County, Mo., where the Rev. Robert T. Hickman, a slave and preacher, led a group of some 50 fleeing slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. They reached Union Army lines near Jefferson City, where they took a handmade boat and traveled up the Mississippi. They were towed by a steamer to Fort Snelling.

The group divided up, according to church leaders. Hickman's group proclaimed themselves "pilgrims" and set about establishing a church in St. Paul. The first church was on Sibley Street; in 1928, Pilgrim moved to the brown brick building at 732 Central Av. W., now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Church history shines down from beautifully detailed stained glass windows depicting past ministers. The original wooden pews creak with use. Worship services are traditional, with more than a dozen choir members and a live band belting out gospel hymns. Ushers wearing crisp white gloves escort worshipers to their seats.

At a special worship service in May, Sharon Harper told the story of her great-great grandfather, the Rev. Hickman, who led the slaves north.

"Not many people made it, and you had to be pretty tough," Harper said. "I think what really led to him seeking freedom or being able to get to freedom was the fact that he could read," Harper said.

"He truly was a pioneer in Minnesota. I feel very strongly about … the whole message of freedom and education," she said. "I could understand why he'd seek freedom at all costs."

Joan Thompson's great-great-grandfather Fielding Combs was among Pilgrim's founders, too, journeying up the river with his wife and six children. She has been attending Pilgrim most of her life.

"To think that after all these years that I'm still attending the church," she said. "After all these years, it's still standing. 150 years."

When Pilgrim's founders landed, there were only between 300 and 400 blacks living in Minnesota, El-Kati estimated.

Now there are close to 100 churches with predominantly black congregations.

Throughout its history, Pilgrim has worked for civil rights, namely for the rights to education and a greater say in taxation issues. The church roster has also boasted big names in Twin Cities leadership, including former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and Bill Wilson, the first African-American elected to the St. Paul City Council in 1980.

Looking ahead at 150

Today, the church continues to advocate for the needy, operating a food shelf, sponsoring men's and women's prison ministries and hosting a chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, among other programs.

While the church still thrives, senior pastor Gill can see that many of its nearly 300 worshipers are aging. He says one of the church's chief goals is to attract younger families.

The 150-year milestone comes with events to attract all ages.

The Friday-through-Sunday celebration includes a dramatic musical performance featuring the church's choir and local musicians as well as a large banquet at the Crowne Plaza in downtown St. Paul.

President Obama has written a congratulatory letter to the church. Gov. Mark Dayton as well as mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis have lauded Pilgrim's efforts to help those in need in the Twin Cities.

"This is going to be an anniversary like none other," Gill said. "What was happening 150 years ago? We look back at that and say, 'OK, now the Lord has brought us here.' And we say, 'My goodness.' "

Rose French • 612-673-4352