Monday, February 11, 2013

The Lost A.M.E. Zion Church -- Bleecker and 10th Streets

The church around 1867 -- NYPL Collection
During the 17th century some partially-freed black slaves were permitted by the Dutch settlers to own property far north of the walled village of New Amsterdam.  As long as they paid an annual fee, they were allowed to live essentially as they wished.  The area they farmed centered around a brook that the Native American Algonquins named Mannette—translated variously as “Spirit Water” or “Demon Water.”  The area would later become part of the Village of Greenwich.

By the middle of the 18th century many of New York’s black citizens worshipped at the John Street Methodist Church; but by the end of the Revolution were disillusioned by the bold racism they endured.   A small group including James Varick and Peter Williams walked away in 1796, forming the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

A century later, in 1892, J. W. Hood would explain in “The Doctrines and Discipline of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church,” “The John Street Church was the first Methodist church erected in that city.  There were several colored members in the church from its first organization.  Between the years 1765 and 1796 the number of colored members largely increased, so much so that caste prejudice forbade their taking the Sacrament until the white members were all served.”

The  first black church in New York Zion was based on Wesleyan tenets, but organized with bishops like the Episcopal Church.  Varick became the first bishop and a strict group of laws were laid out.  There were general rules, such as the prohibition of “buying and selling [on the Lord’s Day], drunkenness; buying or selling or using spirituous or intoxicating liquors; fighting, quarreling, brawling; brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, or railing for railing; the using of many words in buying and selling; the buying and selling of goods that have not paid the duty; giving or taking things on usury; uncharitable or unprofitable conversation; particularly speaking evil of ministers and magistrates; doing unto others what we would not that they should do unto us; “ and much more.

But more telling of the suffering the group had endured was Rule 41 which said “No man who has two or more living wives, or woman who has two or more living husbands, shall be admitted a member of our Church except they were unavoidably separated by slavery, so as to have not the least prospect of being together again in this life.”

In 1800 the group erected its first building.  Called Mother Zion, because it would later inspire other congregations, it stood at Church Street and Leonard Street.   

It was not until July 26, 1820 that vast majority of Zion’s congregation (690 of the 751 members), voted to formally cut its ties with the Methodist Church and form a separate conference of African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churchs.  Two years later a branch was started in Harlem to serve the black population far to the north.

Although slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, racism was alive and flourishing.  A three-day riot by anti-black malcontents left windows smashed in the Mother Zion church and other churches torched. 

In the meantime, the black community on the fringe of the Village of Greenwich  around Minetta and Bleecker Streets continued to grow.  Around the same time that slavery was abolished in New York the brook was covered over and curvy little Minetta Street followed its underground course.  By the 1840s the street was lined with humble homes of impoverished blacks and immigrant whites who coexisted just three blocks away from the fashionable Depau Row on Bleecker Street where wealthy citizens lived in marble-lined halls.

Nearby, on Bleecker Street at the corner of Amos (later to be renamed 10th Street), stood the Dutch Reformed Church.  According to the Vosburgh Collection of Congregational Church Records, the Dutch congregation was here in 1804.  The unpretentious structure sat high above a masonry base.  Shallow pilasters separated the tall, multi-paned windows and a stubby central tower suggested a steeple.

Like the A.M.E. Zion church, the Dutch Reformed congregation found no place for liquor in its midst.  On November 4, 1841 the New-York Tribune reported that “Our readers will be glad to learn that a number of Reformed Drunkards are expected to tell their experiences in drunkenness and temperance at the Dutch Reformed Church…this evening.  We hope the friends of temperance will invite the intemperate, and attend this meeting with them, and thus help to reform them and relieve the drunkard and his destitute wife and suffering children from the effects of this disease.”

During the 1860s the black population in the neighborhood increased as fleeing slaves and, later, emancipated blacks rushed northward, earning the area the nickname “Little Africa.”   In 1864 the congregation of A. M. E. Zion Church took over the former Greenwich Reformed Dutch Church at No. 351 Bleecker Street at the corner of 10th Street.  It sold the Church Street property for $90,000, a staggering sum of about $1 million today.   The congregation purchased the vacant Dutch Reformed Church for exactly half that amount.

By now Greenwich Village was not the sleepy hamlet that had surrounded the Dutch Reformed Church at the beginning of the century.  Instead it was a vibrant, growing community and the church was surrounded by modern buildings and row houses.   Two decades later congregant Alexander Walters would describe the building.  “The church was a commodious brick edifice, which could accommodate two thousand people, when filled to its utmost capacity.”

Throughout the Civil War the church, known as the “Freedom Church,” became a safe harbor for slaves fleeing north along the Underground Railway.  It attracted nationally-known members like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.  Sojourner Truth was a member here who was often heard speaking from the pulpit.  The church became a station in the Underground Railroad network.

Congregants had much to celebrate in 1870.  The war was over, slavery was abolished and on February 3 of that year the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed—prohibiting any government in the United States from barring a citizen the right to vote based on his “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” 

On February 17 a crushing crowd poured into the church for a meeting to determine how best to celebrate.  “A large and very enthusiastic meeting of our colored citizens was held last evening at Zion Church, Bleecker-street, corner of Tenth, to take measures for an appropriate celebration of the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment,” reported The New York Times.  “There were represented no less than eighteen union societies, and fully twelve hundred people were present to vote on the questions presented.”

Among the various speakers that evening, the newspaper felt that “Mr. Turpin…seemed to touch the popular heart more nearly than any other speakers.  In part he said “A new era in our lives has dawned—an era that our fathers and our mothers prayed for, groaned for, agonized, for—and now their offspring live to see it.  We have now become part and parcel of the Constitution of the United States, and no one can take it away from us.  To-night we may rejoice in a free Republic, such as was intended by our fathers.”

It was decided at the meeting that a procession of the entire black population of the city march in procession in support of the ratification of the amendment.  A “Sidewalk Committee” would be appointed “to inform each colored man of the benefit he receives from the act, and to compel him to march in the procession.”  Although a one dollar donation was suggested to help pay for the parade, the final remarks at the church that night were that “men with white coats, gray coats, black coats, or no coats at all, would be expected in the grand procession; and that men with one dollar should pay it, men with less should pay less, and men with none should give their names.”

The congregation of A.M.E. Zion church remembered well the incident on May 22, 1856 when the United States Senate suffered one of its darkest moments.  Three days before Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an anti-slavery Republican, addressed the senators regarding whether Kansas should be admitted into the Union as a free state or a slave state.  Called his “Crime Against Kansas” speech, it named two Democratic senators as culprits in the “crime”—Stephen Douglas of Illinois and South Carolinian Andrew Butler. 

Ridiculing Butler’s supposed Southern chivalry, he accused him with having a mistress “who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean, the harlot Slavery.”

Senator Butler was not present that day, but another South Carolinian, Representative Preston Brooks took umbrage.  He found Sumner in the chambers shortly after the Senate had adjourned for the day.  Brooks slammed his metal-tipped cane onto the Senator’s skull.  Repeatedly he delivered blow after blow.    Sumner tried in vain to escape the bludgeoning until others rushed into the room.

While the bleeding senator was carried away, Representative Brooks walked calmly out.  Although he resigned, both the politicians were seen as heroes by their supporters.  Brooks was immediately reelected and Sumner, after a long recovery, served the Senate for nearly two more decades.

Upon Sumner's death in 1874, a memorial service was held at the A.M.E. Zion church on Bleecker Street.  Reverend Jacob Thomas delivered the sermon in which he characterized Sumner as “an upright man who devoted himself with honesty of purpose to the principles of freedom and espoused the cause of the slave when all parties, no matter what their sentiments, shrank away from grappling with the evil.”

Linking Senator Sumner’s name with those of Abraham Lincoln and John Brown, Thomas added “Unlike many other public men, his career was pure, and he passed through floods of corruption without a stain upon his garments.  Although he was permitted to live to see the slave made free, yet, he did not consider his work finished, and so contended for the equal rights of all races.”

By 1890 the nearly century-old building was showing its age and the congregation initiated a fund-raising project to pay for renovations.  On October 4, New York Age reported that “There will be a grand musical and literary jubilee and prize concert at A.M.E. Zion Church, corner West 10th and Bleeker [sic] streets…commencing Monday, Oct. 20, 1890, and continuing five nights until Friday, Oct.25.”  The article printed a long list of performers along with “Prof. W. F. Craig and orchestra, and a chorus of thirty voices under the management of Prof. S. P. Thompson.”   The publication followed up on October 25, saying “The series of musical and literary entertainments conducted for five nights during the week at A. M. E. Zion Church..have resulted in deserved success.”  It noted that “Tuesday night the star singer was Mme. Marie Selika, who was billed as ‘Boston’s Creole Patti,’ but nevertheless maintained her reputation as an artist.”

An 1896 print shows an entrance staircase to the front; possibly the result of the 1890 fund drive -- NYPL Collection
By the time the 20th century had dawned the black population of New York had, generally, moved northward to Harlem.  The A.M.E. Mother Zion church followed.  The old structure at the corner of Bleecker and 10th Streets  sat unused and abandoned.  But not for long.

A massive red brick apartment building with limestone trim was erected on the site.  The handsome structure remains today, part of the quaint streetscape that gives no hint of the importance the corner played in Black American history.
An apartment house stands on the site of the church -- photo by Alice Lum

1 comment:

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