St. Mary's Episcopal Church, the first African American Protestant Episcopal Church in the city, dates back to 1867. It grew out of the desire of black Episcopalians to worship apart from the indignities of worship alongside white parishioners.
In 1865, 28 African American men and women gathered to establish St. Mary's Chapel for Colored People, the first Episcopal church in the city where blacks could worship without the interference of white discrimination. The worshipers included Major Christian A. Fleetwood, Charlotte Ray (the organist), George W. Cook, Jesse Lawson, and Plinney Locke (Alain Locke's father).
Charles H. Hall, white rector of the Church of the Epiphany, 1317 G Street, NW, and John V. Lewis, white rector of St. John's Church on Lafayette Square, worked with the African Americans to establish the new church. They soon learned from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that a small chapel attached to Kalorama Hospital, one of more than 50 Civil War hospitals then operating throughout the city, was about to be torn down and sold for lumber. Stanton agreed to donate the chapel to the new congregation. Catharine Pearson, a white member of St. John's, donated the lot on 23rd Street in Foggy Bottom, then a predominantly black settlement. The chapel was taken apart, moved, and rebuilt on the site.
A few months after its first service, held in 1867, the church changed its name from St. Barnabas Mission to St. Mary's Chapel for Colored People, and supervisory responsibility was taken on by St. John's Church as part of its parish. The church was led by an assortment of clergy until it obtained its first full-time, African American rector, Alexander Crummell (1819-1898), in 1873.
Crummell was a scholar, educator, and writer. He had received an A.B. degree in theology in 1853 from Queens College in England. He spent nearly 20 years as a missionary in Liberia before returning to the United States.
Crummell worked to attract African Americans then attending other Episcopal churches in the city, and in 1874 St. Mary's was accepted as an official member of the Protestant Episcopal Church. In 1879 Crummell and a number of congregants seeking independence from the Protestant Episcopalian establishment left St. Mary's and founded St. Luke's Episcopal Church (15th and Church streets, NW). After the loss of most of its black parishioners, St. Mary's was left as a mission church of St. John's. It continued to serve its immediate community. In 1887 St. Mary's held its first service in the current building, designed by white architect James Renwick with a Tiffany stained glass window. In 1972 the church was listed on the DC Inventory of Historic Sites, and in 1973 on the National Register of Historic Places.