The Bethel AME Church was a religious, social and political center of the African American community, initially for Reno's small community of Black residents in the 1910s, and later for local civil rights activists during the 1960s. From its inception in 1907, Bethel AME has held to the principles of the AME church (the initials stand for African Methodist Episcopal) to provide self-expression and fuller involvement in society as a means through which members could gain a sense of dignity and self-respect. Bethel AME Church has fostered social equality through its active role in the community, through its direct link with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and through its abiding dignity in the face of conspicuous and unrelenting discrimination.
The congregation obtained the parcel on Bell Street from Sarah Hamilton, a widow who had been born into slavery in Louisiana and by the early 1900s had become a significant landowner in Reno along with her husband, William. The modest wood frame church was completed and dedicated in May of 1910.
During the early 1940s, Bethel AME's minister, Rev. Emmer Henry Booker, corresponded with Nevada Governor E.P. Carville to promote racial equality. In early 1941, Booker sought new quarters for the Bethel congregation, which wanted to expand its facilities to include a kitchen and social hall. The church proposed purchasing an existing building in the predominantly white area of northwest Reno, near the University of Nevada and Reno High School. Protests were lodged by the University, the school board, and the Gamma Phi Beta Sorority at a Reno city council meeting against the black congregation moving to that section of the city. Because of the protests, the congregation decided not to move to another building, but to enlarge and renovate the existing church. The clapboard church was sheathed in brick, the vestibule enlarged, and a full basement constructed for offices, kitchen, a choir room, library and study, and parlor. The events that prompted the renovation of the building reflect the struggle for civil rights in the city of Reno.
Until the 1960s, Reno practiced non-legislated segregation; African Americans were restricted in housing and employment opportunities, were not served in white restaurants and bars, could not enter white casinos, or stay in white hotels. Many members of Reno's NAACP chapter, founded in 1919, were also congregants of Bethel AME, and the church acted as the official meeting location of the chapter. Drawing attention to the discriminatory practices of Reno's businesses and government, the NAACP branch led activities such as picketing the local Woolworth store in 1960. Today, Bethel AME Church is one of the most significant buildings in the State of Nevada associated with its African American population and the civil rights movement.