The Rev. James S. Allen Sr., 84, retired pastor of Vine Memorial Baptist Church in West Philadelphia and a power in city politics, died Sunday, Nov. 22, from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Mr. Allen, who lived in Wynnefield, arrived from Omaha, Neb., in 1978 to take the pulpit at the West Philadelphia church. He would remain for more than 37 years. He was only the church’s second pastor since its 1932 founding.
“Almost immediately, he became involved in the community, and he led a preachers’ protest that helped to break a 50-day teachers’ strike in 1981,” said his son the Rev. Kenneth Allen, now pastor of his father’s former church in Omaha.
Out of that protest, Mr. Allen helped form the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, and he was its first president. The powerful organization was crucial to the election of the city’s first Black mayor, W. Wilson Goode, in 1983.
Mr. Allen advised former President Bill Clinton, whom he had known in his native Arkansas, and countless other leaders.
He served on the Philadelphia Commission for Human Relations for 25 years, including as its chair, and also was on the city’s Fair Housing Commission.
He also worked closely with the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, a giant of the movements for civil rights and Black economic empowerment, and helped Mr. Sullivan develop Opportunities Industrialization Centers in Philadelphia, Little Rock, and Omaha.
“He was a committed and dedicated fighter in the overall civil rights and human rights struggle,” said the Rev. Dr. Ralph Blanks, the current pastor at Vine Memorial. Blanks said Mr. Allen had much in common with Martin Luther King Jr. and Sullivan.
“They served the God who called for all of his people to be free and enjoy an abundant life, full of justice and mercy and love,” Blanks said.
Though he was a prominent civic leader, Mr. Allen was a down-to-earth pastor involved in the lives of his parishioners.
“He was a small-town guy in a big city,” said William Bryant, a deacon and church clerk at Vine Memorial Baptist. Mr. Allen was quick to comfort the ill and the grieving, Bryant said.
“He walked with dignitaries. But he would go down to 52nd Street to Big George’s to say hi to everyone in the restaurant as he got his fried chicken,” Bryant said, referring to the well-known soul-food restaurant. “He would talk to anybody and he would stop and help anybody.”
James Sterling Allen was born in 1936 in Columbia County, Ark., to Georgia Edwards Allen and Walter U. Allen, who were sharecroppers. He was the second of six children and picked cotton as a child.
But after graduating from New Hope High School in Mount Holly, Ark., he attended and graduated from Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock.
On a furlough from the Air Force in 1957, he married Dorothy Hunter, a woman from his hometown, and embarked on his career as a preacher, at a church in Little Rock, and then one in Omaha.
Over the years, Mr. Allen often told church members to love and be kind to one another, his son said.
“Jesus said, ‘It is by these things, all men will know you are my disciples if you have loved one another,’” the Rev. Kenneth Allen said. “He would say that every Sunday.”
Mr. Allen received numerous awards and served in leadership positions with the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. and other religious organizations.
His first wife died in 2001. He married his second wife, Henrietta Lemmon Barnes Allen, in 2008
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Allen is survived by a daughter, Patricia Allen Harmon; sons James Allen Jr. and Calvin Allen; six grandchildren; one sister; one brother; and many other relatives.
There will be a viewing from 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6, at Vine Memorial Baptist Church, 5600 W. Girard Ave., Philadelphia 19131.
A second viewing will be at the church 9 to 11 a.m. Monday, Dec. 7, followed by a funeral.