On March 30, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was certified as duly ratified, prohibiting the denial of citizens the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” by state or federal government. This was of course meant to ensure that African-American men could vote, though that right was frequently and in some parts of the country uniformly abridged for much of the century which followed. The 15th amendment was the last of what are known as the Reconstruction Amendments following the Civil War; the 13th amendment abolished slavery, and the 14th amendment guaranteed, among other things, citizenship for African-Americans.
In spite of the rocky road the 15th amendment took to fulfillment of its promise to guarantee the right to vote, it was widely hailed by African-Americans and their supporters as a great leap forward in the quest for equality under the law. And the Zion African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, at the corner of Bleecker and West 10th Street (seen on the GVSHP Civil Rights and Social Justice Map), was at the center of the celebration of the passage of the 15th amendment among New York City’s African-American Community.
The original AME Zion Church, the very first black church in New York City, was founded when a group of parishioners, led by former slave James Varick, broke from the John Street Methodist Church in 1796. They first worshiped in a rented house on Cross Street, but by 1800, had saved enough money to build their own house of worship on Church Street. The Mother AME Zion Church, also known as “Mother Zion”, remained on Church Street until 1864, and became a part of a network of Underground Railroad “stations.” In 1864, AME Zion sold the church on Church Street and purchased the former Dutch Reform Church at 10th and Bleecker Streets, in close proximity to the area that was known in the 19th century as Little Africa due to its sizeable African American population.
Proposed in Congress on February 26, 1869, the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment was nearly a year-long process. Finally, on February 3, 1870, the final state of the 28 needed for ratification did so. The New York Times reported in February of 1870 of the passage, “Celebration of Colored Citizens of the Day of Jubliee-Enthusiastic Meeting at Zion Church-Our Colored Citizens in Council.” The paper went on to report: “There were represented no less than eighteen union societies, and fully twelve hundred people were present to vote on the questions presented.”
On March 31, 1870, the congregation gathered again in celebration with the certification of the amendment with both black and white citizens in attendance. According to the Times, “The reading desk was covered with the national flag and surmounted by the words, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” formed by gas jets.” Sermons, hymns and speeches were offered including by sixteen-year-old Charlotte E. Harper, who “read, with due emphasis and correctness, the Fifteenth Amendment and the proclamation of its passage.” Reverend Mr. Turpin spoke in his sermon of those who were part of the antislavery movement including Abraham Lincoln who he said “‘dug up the ore with which the key was made to unlock the fetters of slavery and open the door of liberty for the colored race.'”
On April 24, 1870, a more sober sermon was offered by the pastor of the Bleecker Street church, Reverend William F. Butler, entitled “The Duties of Our New Citizenship.” He reminded the congregation, that although they had achieved the goals of freedom, citizenship, and the vote, they must work toward equal rights, the education of their children, and to perpetuate “the religion of our fathers.”
By the end of the 19th century, most of the African Americans of Little Africa had migrated north in Manhattan. After 1904, Zion AME followed them, and moved to Columbus Avenue and 89th Street, before finally settling on West 136th Street in Harlem, where it remains today. The church on Bleecker Street was torn down and replaced by a ‘new law’ tenement to house the Village’s exploding population of European immigrants at the time.
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