Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Lenox Presbyterian Church (Grace Congregational) 318-310 West 139th Street

On June 18, 1893 an article in the New-York Tribune began "One of the pleasantest and most rapidly growing parts of the city of New-York is west of Seventh-ave., between One-hundred-and-thirty-fifth and One-hundred-and-forty-fifth sts...It is largely inhabited by families who are always advancing in everything that is good for the mind and the soul.  This may account for the rapid growth of the Lenox Presbyterian Church."

Three years earlier the Rev. W. A. Halsey and William M. Waite had opened a Sunday school on Eighth Avenue (now Frederick Douglass Boulevard) near 137th Street.  It served 24 residents.  Within four months, on February 27, 1891, the growing group moved to larger quarters.  By the end of the year, with a congregation now numbering 37, the New York Presbytery had approved the formal formation of a new congregation, the Lenox Presbyterian Church with Rev. David G. Smith as its interim pastor.

So successful was the newly-organized church that on January 7, 1892 the trustees purchased the 140-foot wide plot at Nos. 318-310 West 139th Street.  Architect Joseph Ireland received the commission and construction commenced within a few months.  

Children from Sunday schools city-wide were responsible for contributing $3,500 of the $12,000 cost of the building.  According to The New York Times, 4,673 children contributed their nickels and dimes.  The names of every one of them were placed in the cornerstone.

Construction was completed in December 1892.  Ireland had produced a rather humble, brick-faced church the design of which drew mostly from the Romanesque Revival style.  Perhaps because of budget restraints, some of the elements that appeared in Ireland's renderings never made it to the finished church.  Most notable were the projecting quoins that would have framed the arched openings.

Ireland's original designs called for slightly more robust ornament.  New-York Tribune, January 9, 1893 (copyright expired)

Stair-stepped brick corbels ran below the gable edge, terminating in unusual flared gable springs on either side.  Ireland gave a brief nod to the Queen Anne style by including a panel of terra cotta tiles in the form of flowers below the large central stained glass window.  And a solitary Gothic Revival detail, a decorative crocket, appeared at the peak of the gable. 

Dedication ceremonies took place on January 8, 1893.  According to the New-York Tribune, "Rev. Dr. John Hall, of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, preached a most interesting dedicatory service."  The New York Times deemed the church "a neat-looking structure of red brick." 

A few weeks later, on the evening of February 4, the new pastor was elected.  The Rev. Bryce K. Douglass was the pastor of the Presbyterian church at Watkins, New York.  He had preached in the new church the past two Sundays "and has given great satisfaction," reported the New-York Tribune.  Once settled in, Douglass was given a glittering reception on the evening of May 2.  In reporting on the event, the New-York Tribune explained he had "recently been installed in the pastorate of this new and flourishing congregation."

As with almost all churches, lectures were somewhat regular occurrences on weekday evenings.  The Rev. Michael Nardi spoke here on July 14, 1897, for instance.  The Tribune described him as "the Italian evangelist who has labored so effectively among his own countrymen" and said he would "give some account of his conversion and work."  And on June 29, 1902 the Rev. Dr. W. A. P. Martin spoke on "The Progress of the Gospel in China."

The Lenox Presbyterian Church had outgrown its little brick building within a decade of its dedication  On February 10, 1904 The Sun reported "The New York Presbytery has sold the Lenox Presbyterian Church property, at Nos. 308 and 310 West 139th street...for $40,000.  A new church will be built at St. Nicholas avenue and 141st street."

The new owner was the Swedish Evangelical Immanuel Church.  The congregation would remain here until 1923.  By then the demographics of the neighborhood had radically changed.   Harlem had become the center of New York's Black population.  The church building was sold to Grace Congregational Church, formally organized in 1921.

The renovations that were made were indicative of the spirit of the congregation and its pastor Rev. Dr. Alexander C. Garner.  A kindergarten was installed in the basement, a day nursery shared the first floor with the worship space, and on the second floor was now an "employment agency connected with the church," according to Department of Buildings documents.  The church day nursery was the first in Harlem and allowed mothers the ability to hold down a day job.

This photo taken not long after Grace Congregational took over is rather somber. from the Avery Classics Collection of Columbia University Libraries. 

Garner also welcomed members of the theatrical profession.  It earned the church the nickname the "Church of the Actors."  

In what today would be seen as blatantly racist article, The New York Times informed its readers of the changes in the Harlem neighborhood on March 1, 1925.  Entitled "Negro City in Harlem is a Race Capital" it began "Black fingers whipping furiously over the white keys, beating out cascades of jazz; black bodies swaying rhythmically as their owners blow or beat or pluck the grotesque instruments of the band; on the dancing floor throngs, black and white, gliding, halting, swinging back in time to the music--this is the Harlem of the cabarets, jazz capital of the world."  In enumerating the changes, the article went on to note "The Grace Congregational Church of Harlem has taken over the building of a Swedish congregation west of Eighty Avenue."

It was exactly the sort of attitude the leaders of Grace Congregational Church sought to correct.  In August 1927 the church was the venue the Fourth Pan-African Congress.  On its second day Mrs. Helen Curtis, widow of the former American Minister to Liberia spoke on "African Missions."  She may not have been prepared for the discussion that followed.  The Times reported "white missionaries were criticized for their allegedly prejudiced attitude toward negro religious workers."

Later that week Robert W. Bagnall, director of agencies for the NAACP spoke "of the inadequate opportunities offered to the negro for education in the United States, especially in the South," according to The Times on August 25.

Among the actors who worshiped here at the time was Charles Wesley Hill.  He had started his career in medicine shows and "Tom" shows (skits and plays based on Uncle Tom's Cabin); and was an attraction in farm towns, portrayed as a Kickapoo Indian, according to The New York Times years later.

He got his break after a stint in vaudeville when he got roles in the 1921 Broadway musical Shuffle Along with music by Eubie Blake, and in the 1924 Runnin' Wild.  In 1930 he landed the distinctive role of the angel Gabriel in The Green Pastures.  The New York Times said "His performance in a major role was been acclaimed as one of the finest in the play."

Hill was crossing Eighth Avenue at 127th Street on the morning of December 10, 1930 when he was struck by a taxicab and killed.  The cast choir of The Green Pastures sang at his funeral in Grace Congregational Church.

A surprising effort to erase racial prejudice at an early age was devised in the summer of 1946.  Twenty-two children from Grace Congregational were sent to Quincy, Massachusetts where each would stay with a white family for a two-week visit.  The experiment was so successful that it was repeated, in reverse, the following year.

The photographer accidentally reversed the negative when he printed this 1940 shot, resulting in the entrance being on the wrong side.  Grace Congregational Church had painted the facade white.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

On July 15, 1947 fourteen girls a one boy arrived in Harlem.  The Times remarked "To the pastors of the two churches the project was 'an attempt to show the folly of racial intolerance.'"  To the children, however, it was just fun.  For one thing, they were reunited with the friends they had made the summer before.  "There were squeals, as always when children have been long separated," said the article.  Among the activities planned were a boat excursion to Bear Mountain for a picnic, visiting the Bronx Zoo and the Statue of Liberty and a trip to the United Nations headquarters at Lake Success.

There was, of course, widespread speculation about the advisability of the project.  One reporter asked Effie C. Waddell of the Quincy Family Welfare Society who chaperoned the group what the children thought about the mixing of races.

"What are these children thinking?  Why they do not even think about it.  They are just having a good time with their friends, and they enjoy it."

Another funeral to capture press attention was that of 69-year old James H. Williams who died on May 4, 1948.  For four decades he had been the chief attendant of the Red Caps in Grand Central Terminal.  Williams was a well-recognized figure who always wore a red carnation in his buttonhole.  The Times remarked "he met scores of famous actors and actresses, holders of high office, distinguished citizens of all sorts, of all nations."  Among those who knew Williams well was Alfred E. Smith "whom the Chief had known since the former Governor of the state was Sheriff of New York County."

In the turbulent 1960's the pastor of Grace Congregational, Rev. W. Sterling Cary, faced racism and discrimination head on.  As the moderator of a conference of Congregational churches, on August 26, 1962 he charged "that Negroes here still faced discrimination in appointment to responsible positions" within the city.  He also pointed out that seminaries "steadfastly deny to Negro scholars the right to teach," as reported by The New York Times.

"America is the only land in the world where a large segment of the population is forced to continuously fight, struggle and labor for the blessings of citizenship.  The fact that Negroes must engage in boycotts, sit-ins, and freedom rides--all of this is a sorry condemnation of the American way of life."

When the Citywide Committee for Integrated Schools fought to integrate New York City schools in 1964, Cary was among the 20 Harlem ministers who voted to boycott the schools on February 3.  And when he addressed a convention of 500 ministers and laymen of the 2-million-member United Church of Christ on January 30, 1966 regarding racial injustice in the South, Cary said in part that that public opinion for civil rights must be mobilized "without the help of Klansmen, insane bigoted mobs or mentally sick public officials or the explosive eruptions of a riot."

Following his departure from Grace Congregational, incidentally, on December 7, 1972 Rev. W. Sterling Cary was elected president of the National Council of Churches, the first Black man to hold that office.

Grace Congregational Church continues to be a vital force in the Harlem community.  Music is a major part of its program.  Other than an unfortunate set of replacement doors, little has changed outwardly to its charming brick and brownstone church.

photographs by the author

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