A legendary marble bust of Richard Allen, widely thought to have been lost or destroyed - if not forgotten entirely - at last has returned to Philadelphia, where it was originally displayed during the final days of the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Fairmount Park.

The bust of Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and one of the seminal figures in American history, stands about two feet high and is believed to be the first work of public art completely conceived and sponsored by African Americans.

It will be ceremonially unveiled at a special service at the First District A.M.E. Headquarters, 3801 Market St., on Thursday, said Bishop Richard F. Norris, who will host the service.

The return of the bust, which has been at Ohio's Wilberforce University, overlooked and ignored since late 1877, marks the climax of dedicated sleuthing by members of the A.M.E. church and a Temple University art historian.

Norris noted that this year marks the 250th anniversary of Allen's birth and that the return of the bust, on loan from Wilberforce for at least a year, "highlights the significance" of Allen and sheds light on the treatment of African Americans at the time of the centennial, held in the summer before the end of Reconstruction in 1877.

Born enslaved, Allen bought his own freedom and in 1787 cofounded the Free African Society, a self-help group and the first organization formed by blacks in North America. He went on to lead, with Absalom Jones, a black effort to care for the city's dead and dying during the great yellow fever epidemic of 1793.

The next year, Allen founded Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on land he owned at Sixth and Lombard Streets, where the church still stands. He was a staunch abolitionist and an early force for the Underground Railroad, and he organized the first Negro Convention - a national gathering of black leaders - in 1830.

"There was only one African American exhibit at the centennial of the nation," Norris said. "That exhibit was supposed to be from the A.M.E. church. And that didn't happen."

Why it didn't happen - actually, it partially happened - is a major element of the story.

Members of the A.M.E.'s Arkansas Annual Conference came up with the idea of a monument to Allen for the centennial, obtained agreement from centennial officials, raised the money, hired a sculptor, and arranged transportation, said the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel.

In fact, Tyler said, his great-great-great-great-grandfather Jesse W. Devine assisted in the fund-raising and organizing efforts.

The group selected Cincinnati monument maker Alfred White to create the memorial. He crafted an elaborate 22-foot-high marble gazebo-like structure with columns, arches, and decorative cherubim and angels - with the bust of Allen, carved from fine-grained, milky Carrara marble, on a pedestal in the center.

"Men and women could sit and talk beneath Richard Allen's gaze," said Tyler.

By the time the memorial was completed, the centennial was already under way in Philadelphia. The enormous piece was packed on a train and sent east.

But at a bridge over the Chemung River in north-central Pennsylvania, a broken train wheel tangled with bridge rails and catapulted 16 railroad cars, including the massive monument, into the roiling water below, said Susanna Gold, assistant professor of art history at Temple University's Tyler School of Art.

"A number of reports [at the time] noted the damage and the loss of the monument," said Gold, who has done extensive research on the cultural implications of the Centennial Exposition and will discuss the bust at a 10 a.m. talk next Friday at the First District A.M.E. Headquarters.

Miraculously, Gold said, the bust was traveling in a separate car from the rest of the monument and was unharmed. It eventually made its way to Philadelphia and was finally installed on centennial grounds, near the crest of Georges Hill, on Nov. 2, eight days before the great fair ended.

At that point, the A.M.E. leaders wanted the bust permanently installed in the park, but the Fairmount Park Commission refused, citing park "standards" in "a rather snippy letter," Gold said.

"The park had not seen the monument" at the time of the rejection, she noted. "The project didn't seem worthy enough to them - a monument to Richard Allen didn't measure up."

Tyler said that the centennial was held at the beginning of a difficult period for African Americans. Frederick Douglass was not allowed to speak at the exposition, as planned. At the dedication of the Allen monument, J.T. Jenifer, an A.M.E. pastor, warned of lynchings and the dangers of withdrawing federal troops from the states of the defeated Confederacy.

Jenifer's was the only black voice heard on the centennial grounds that summer, Tyler said.

After the park refused permanent installation, A.M.E. leaders decided to send the bust to Wilberforce University, an A.M.E.-founded institution in Xenia, Ohio.

And there it sat for the next century, probably in storage, until the 1970s. After a tornado damaged several campus buildings, the Allen bust appeared on the reference desk in the university library.

It was known to be a bust of Allen, but no other information about it circulated. In fact, when Tyler was attending Wilberforce's Payne Theological Seminary, he walked past it every day.

Who knew?

"No one knew the significance of the story," Tyler said. "It was there since 1877. But the story was lost."

Gold, the art historian, tracked the bust down about a year before Tyler. She had followed small mentions in the press over the years and, on a hunch, contacted Wilberforce. Tyler did the same. They have now combined notes and information to give a fuller version of the story. Wilberforce agreed to send the bust back to Philadelphia for cleaning and conservation - undertaken by Milner + Carr Conservation - and for exhibition.

"The unveiling of the bust and its return to Philadelphia over the next year is an opportunity for people to see something very significant for our city," said Tyler.

"It's rare," Gold agreed. "This is the first time the African American community sponsored and erected a public monument to an African American person that I've found in my research."

After the unveiling, the bust will be on view at the Richard Allen Museum at Mother Bethel for at least a year.

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com.