Monday, September 21, 2020

The Lost Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church - 239 West 25th Street

from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1865, only six years after the cornerstone was laid for its church on West 28th Street near Broadway, the Free Will Baptist Church sold it to the Disciples of Christ and moved west.  It erected a Gothic Revival structure on West 25th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.  The facade was divided into three parts by buttresses that morphed into crocketed spires.  The Gothic arch of the main entrance was mimicked in the stained glass window directly above.  Two narrow Gothic windows graced the flanking sections.

Like all  19th century churches, the Free Will Baptist doubled as a meeting and lecture hall.   In 1871 the entire nation celebrated the 25th anniversary of the organization of the Grand Army of the Republic.  The New York Herald reported "This association of battle-scarred veterans of the war for the Union was born April 6, 1866, and its twenty-fifth birthday will be celebrated all over the land with banquets, speech-making, music and general rejoicing."

The article noted "James C. Rice Post No. 29 will appear in uniform at the Post and repair in a body to Rev. Waldo Messaroe's First Free Baptist Church, West Twenty-fifth street, where they will enjoy a vocal and instrumental concert, prayer by the chaplain, and an address by the Rev. Mr. Messaros."

In 1894 the congregation moved again.  It leased the 25th Street building to the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  On May 1 of the following year it sold the 80-foot wide church to its tenants for $67,500--more than $2 million today.

The church had been organized in 1819 by the Rev. Richard Allen, who went on to become the first Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  It had worshiped on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village until now.

Churches were, of course, racially segregated in the 19th century.  Large meetings in the church were now mostly concerned with the conditions of the poor in New York City, and more widely, conditions of Blacks throughout the country.  

On April 12, 1897 a meeting under the auspices of the White Rose Mission (an organization backed mostly by white socialites which focused on the plight of Black New Yorkers) was held here.  Among the speakers was the remarkable Lucy Seaman Bainbridge.  The wealthy widow who lived on Gramercy Park, had served in the Civil War as a nurse and helped organize the Women's Health Protective Association.

But an even more notable speaker that night was Booker T. Washington.  The New-York Tribune reported "He spoke of the work performed by the woman's branch in Tuskegee, and of the good emanating through its usefulness to kindred societies in Alabama."

In 1903 the Rev. R. D. Stinson addressed an assemblage here.  He had come north to raise funds for the expansion of the Morris Brown College in Atlanta.  The school's goal was to provide skills to Southern Blacks that would provide them a means to make a living.  He explained "The industrial department of the college, which is along the lines of Tuskegee, comprises dressmaking, cooking, housekeeping, laundering, nurse training, carpentry, harness making, shoemaking, printing, bricklaying, tailoring and art."

On the night of Stinson's address, Bishop W. B. Derrick of the New York diocese of the African Methodist Episcopal Church also spoke.  His topic was more political, insisting that the Congressional bill that proposed to give pensions to former slaves was "an insult."  Instead, he said, those funds should be directed towards institutions like  Morris Brown College.  "We do not ask the nation to pension us.  We ask the nation, though, to educate us so that we can support ourselves."

Racial tensions were at a heightened level at year.  After several lynchings in the Midwest, George White was lynched and his body burned in Wilmington, Delaware on June 2.

Even before that incident, which sparked nation-wide comment, the New York community considered its response.  On March 6, 1903 The Sun reported "There was a mass meeting of negroes at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church last night to consider 'the crisis through which the negroes of the United States are now passing."  Among the issues agreed upon was that President Theodore Roosevelt should have their further support.  The Rev. Dr. Proctor of Bay Shore, Long Island, noted that the "philanthropist, statesman and hero of the White fighting the negro's second battle for his political rights."

Bishop Derrick was there, as well, who contrasted Roosevelt with Senator Benjamin Tillman, from South Carolina, an outspoken racist.  The bishop's blunt, uncensored verbiage did not pull any punches.  "The man's every utterance on a serious subject is an insult to his own race.  He speaks to a cultivated audience and his text is 'Nigger.'  His subject matter is 'Nigger' and his peroration is 'Nigger.'  His soul is full of 'Nigger' and if I were asked for a definition of the term I would say that the man's conduct has made a sure enough 'Nigger' of himself."

Booker T. Washington was back at the church on December 10, 1905 for the 100th birthday of William Lloyd Garrison.  The New-York Tribune reported that the church "was well filled yesterday afternoon...and with the negro worshippers at the church were several white persons, including a few women."

Garrison had worked tirelessly throughout his lifetime to abolish slavery.  His anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, was widely-read for three decades, until slavery was abolished.  In his address, Washington said in part "The celebration teaches the white man that the blacks are not ungrateful to or forgetful of those who have done good to them.   It teaches that Garrison did not work in vain, but there is no better way for us to show our gratitude than by our daily life, proving that we are a people worthy of the birthright of American citizenship."

In 1906 New York Republican candidate for governor, Charles E. Hughes, made a campaign stop in the church.  The New-York Tribune reported "The church, which is a large one with lots of balcony space, was jammed with negroes and a sprinkling of whites.  All received flags as they entered the church and the waving of them made a pretty sight when Mr. Hughes entered.

National conditions had not improved overall.  Earlier that year a Tennessee sheriff, Joseph F. Shipp, had allowed a mob to storm the jailhouse and remove and lynch a Black prisoner, Ed Johnson.  Hughes told the audience, that every offender should be punished.  "We don't want any lynch law in this country."

Hughes no doubt recognized the voting power in the Black community.  By now the congregation of Bethel A.M.E. Church had swelled to 2,000 members.

The high esteem in which the congregation held President Theodore Roosevelt crumbled after the incident that would become known as the Brownsville Affair.  The 25th Infantry Regiment, a segregated unit of Black soldiers called the Buffalo Soldiers, was stationed at Fort Brown, Texas.  Following the killing of a white bartender and police officer in 1906, townspeople accused members of the unit.  Although their commanders testified that they had all been in the barracks that night, evidence was planted against them.  President Roosevelt ordered the discharge without honors of the 167 soldiers.  It cost them their pensions and prevented them from ever serving in Federal civil service positions.

On June 5, 1908 the New-York Tribune reported "President Roosevelt and his treatment of the negro were attacked last night at a meeting of the Bethel Lyceum of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church."  In the group were the editors of several Black-owned newspapers, including The New York Age, The New England Torchlight, and The Indianapolis Freeman.

Passions had not abated by election time.  On September 27 The New York Times reported on another meeting at the church.  The President had made recent comments that, according to the newspaper, had "stirred up anew the resentment of negro Republicans."  In his remarks that night the congregation's pastor, the Rev. Reverdy C. Ransom said in part "I wonder if the President, as he lies in his downy couch in the White House, does not hear the groans and cries of their widows and orphans."

from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1911 Rev. Ransom headed what had become the largest Black congregation in the city.  Race relations across the country had not improved, lynchings were still going on, and discrimination was omnipresent.  On the Sunday following the murder of Zacharaiah Walker in August that year, the topic of Rev. Ransom's sermon was "Who Lynched Zacarahiah Walker Last Sunday at Coatesville, Pa?"  His answer was, in short, "Not the cold blooded mob of Coatesville, but American public opinion."

Ransom admitted he was losing faith that violence against Blacks could be stopped by pacifism.  "I am unwillingly but slowly coming to the conclusion that the only way for the Negro in particular and the dark skinned peoples in general to win and hold the respect of white people is to mete out to them a white man's measure in all the relations of life.  Pious professions and solemn proclamations have little weight when they come from a people whose character has been so clearly disclosed."

The minister felt that "Men would be slow to apply the match for the incineration of a living victim if it were probable that the answering torch would kindle a flame in their midst."  But he was by no means condoning lawlessness.  "But you stay inside the law.  No matter what happens you stay inside the law.  Then you can demand that the white man enforce this law.  The day the Negro becomes lawless he is doomed."

On March 22, 1913 the congregation sold its church property to Sol Brooks and Joseph Bichler, partners in the firm of S. Brooks & Co.  The Bethel A. M. E. Church moved northward to Harlem.  The new owners held the property only until December, when it was sold at auction.  The church with its colorful and important history was demolished the following year.

Its replacement building made way in 1962 for the six-story apartment building which occupies the site today.

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