CEDAR RAPIDS — The modest-sized red brick church situated near the corner of Sixth Street and Sixth Avenue SE can easily be missed passing down the street, but on closer inspection more exists than an unassuming structure.
Beyond the arched doorway and windows stands the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal — or AME — church with more than 100 years of stories to tell. The oldest black congregation in Cedar Rapids served as an important gathering space in the post-slavery, post-American Revolution era and beyond.
“People have been here for a long time,” said W.C. Perkins, the church’s pastor. “They’ve labored here. Important history happened here.”
Bethel AME is one of 50 sites around Cedar Rapids where permanent historic markers have been installed, mostly on Wednesday. Perkins and congregants joined community leaders to unveil the new plaque across the street from Bethel AME, 512 Sixth St. SE, on Wednesday afternoon.
The markers are mapped out so people can navigate from one sign to the next by bike or foot, learn history, get exercise and explore the city.
“What a great way to get history into neighborhoods where people live and work,” said Mark Stoffer Hunter, research historian at The History Center. “It encourages you to go out, study history, do it on your own time, and get some exercise. ... It’s a way for all of us to become history experts.”
Officials from the city, scholars from Coe College, members of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, the African American Museum of Iowa and The History Center collaborated on the historic markers project, which has been underway for more than a year. They’ve been researching old property records, conducting oral history interviews, and pouring through archives.
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The idea originated through the Cleveland neighborhood, which had been working on an initiative to get neighbors more active. They came upon the idea of erecting markers to create a self-guided, historic walking tour. City officials caught wind of it and decided to expand it citywide.
“I really hope this project educates people on why Cedar Rapids is the way it is today, and share some of those stories that makes us Cedar Rapidians,” said Jeff Hintz, a city planner who worked on the project.
The markers pay homage to historic structures, people and neighborhoods.
Other examples include historic geographic areas including downtown; religious institutions such as Mother Mosque and First Reformed Church; African American history in Cedar Rapids; schools, including Harrison, Roosevelt, Grant Vocational and Washington High; and historic industrial sites such as Chandler Pump Co.
The markers include a permanent plaque with a story about each location. People can download a QR reader to a smartphone to scan for more information.
The city plans to install 200 markers over the coming years as funding becomes available, likely in cycles of 15 or 20 at a time. The first wave of signs cost $6,200 and was paid for through a Community Development Block Grant the city received after historic structures were demolished following the 2008 flood, said Anne Russett, a city planner who also was involved.
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