In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to the Village.
The Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church at 140-148 West 137th Street is the sixth home of New York City’s very first black church, and the founding church of the A.M.E. Zion Conference of churches. Today, the gorgeous neo-Gothic structure, built in 1923-1925, stands as a symbol of the city’s black, religious, and civil rights history while continuing to serve as a touchstone for over 1.4 million followers. In honor of Black History Month, we delve into the remarkable story of Mother Zion, which takes us beyond the Village and back.
In the early 1920s, Mother Zion Church, then located at 151 West 136th Street, bought three adjacent buildings on West 137th Street, which it demolished to make way for its next church. While many black congregations were moving to and growing in Harlem at this time, most purchased buildings formerly used by white congregations that had moved out of the neighborhood, as they had previously in other neighborhoods as well. Mother Zion, however – a groundbreaking church in every sense of the word – decided to do something different, and to build its new home from scratch, reflecting its identity, vision, and growing resources. This was the early 1920s after all, and the Harlem Renaissance was just taking off. The church hired architect George W. Foster Jr., one of the first black architects registered in the United States and one of only 59 black architects recorded in the 1910 United States Census.
Constructed from 1923 to 1925, in many ways Foster’s design reflects the predominant religious architectural trends of the period. American protestant denominations that had rejected the Gothic style in the mid-to-late-1800s for its associations to catholicism had returned to experiment with the Gothic by the end of the century, which emerged in neo-Gothic designs. On the interior, Mother Zion resembles its contemporaries as well, with an auditorium plan centered on a pulpit raised on a low platform.
Throughout the many struggles and strains that shaped Harlem in 1920s through the 1960s, the church was a strong supporter of and leader in civil rights activism. Led by Pastor James W. Brown (who served from 1912-1936) and Dr. Benjamin C. Robeson (who served from 1936-1963), the church drew renowned Harlem residents Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Marion Anderson, Roland Hayes, Joe Louis, and Paul Robeson (brother of the pastor). In 1946, President Harry S. Truman received a delegation from the church in honor of its 150 year anniversary, which was widely celebrated.
On July 13, 1993, the church was designated an individual New York City landmark.
Mother Zion has been located in its current home on West 137th Street for nearly a century. But its history extends back nearly a hundred thirty years before that, in multiple locations from the southern tip of Manhattan to Harlem. During that time period, for half a century, its longest home was in the heart of Greenwich Village, on the corner of Bleecker and West 10th Streets.
In the late 18th century, black members of the John Street Methodist Church had become a prominent part of the congregation and began to take on leadership positions (a third and later incarnation of this church, built in 1841, still stands at 44 John Street and is an individual NYC landmark). However, when former slave James Varick became a deacon and another former slave became a sexton, the white parishioners forced the black congregants to the back of the church. Though the church’s black members held separate services as early as 1780, it was not until 1796 that black leadership, facing this ongoing discrimination, decided to form a separate church altogether. That year, the black faction of the church began conducting Sunday services in a rented house on Cross Street between Orange and Mulberry Streets (1796-1800), founding what would be the very first black church in New York City, and the first congregation in what would become a denomination with over 1.4 million members today throughout the country and world.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church was dedicated in October 1800, and by March 1801 the church formally incorporated, requiring its trustees to be of African descent. Operating out of a wooden building at the corner of Church and Leonard Streets (1800-1864), the church acquired its own burial plot by 1807 and erected a new brick building by 1820. Still, while all the trustees and congregants were black, the A.M.E. Church did not have any ordained black ministers, and white ministers were called upon to lead Sunday and other services. Hoping to develop a plan to discuss these issues and ensure the sustainability of their new church, the trustees met at James Varick’s house on July 26, 1820.
Varick, a respected entrepreneur and orator who had served as a deacon of the John Street Methodist Church, was born into slavery in upstate New York, and was likely a slave of the prominent Dutch Varick family (one of whose members, Richard Varick, was the Mayor of New York from 1789 to 1801 and became the namesake of Varick Street). As a young boy Varick and his mother were freed and moved to New York City, and when he was a teenager, Varick joined the John Street Methodist Church. At the meeting held at Varick’s house, the group voted to officially withdraw from the white “Mother” Methodist Church and create a separate “conference” of African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches.
On September 13, 1820, Varick and Abraham Thompson were selected by the congregation to become elders, and together they developed a new book of discipline for the church. Almost two years later, on June 17, 1822, white Methodist elders at last ordained Varick, Thompson, and Leven Smith, and Varick officially became supervisor of the church on July 30, 1822. In addition to his role as minister, Varick ran a school, served as the first chaplain of the New York African Society for Mutual Relief and a vice-president of the African Bible Society, and supported the establishment of Freedom’s Journal, the first American black newspaper. In 1821, Varick helped petition the state constitutional convention for the right to vote, and on July 4, 1827, the congregation celebrated when New York State enacted the final emancipation of slaves.
Although Varick passed away shortly thereafter, the church continued to grow. The A.M.E. Zion conference became known as the “Freedom Church” because of its prominent role in the abolitionist movement, and many conference churches – including the original A.M.E. church – became stations on the Underground Railroad. Former slave Isabella Baumfree, who came to be known as the preacher and prophet Sojourner Truth, joined Mother Zion upon her arrival to New York City in 1829. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were also members.
In 1864, Varick’s church (renamed the Zion African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church) relocated to a former Dutch Reform Church at the northeast corner of West 10th Street and Bleecker Street (1864-1904). At this time, the heart of the city’s largest black community was in Greenwich Village, and for much of the 19th century into the first years of the 20th, the area around Minetta Lane, Minetta Street, and Minetta Place was referred to as “Little Africa.” Zion A.M.E.’s time on West 10th Street was known as “The Flourishing Period” for the church and the conference, whose wealth and success expanded significantly. While here, the congregation celebrated the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote.
Zion A.M.E. stayed on Bleecker Street until 1904, when increased immigration, the construction of the subway, and new housing opportunities elsewhere in Manhattan led to the movement of the black community out of Greenwich Village. The church, as it always had, would follow these migration patterns north, moving to the Upper West Side, and finally to its present home in Harlem.
To learn more about African-American history in the Village, check out our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map and the African-American History tour of our Greenwich Village Historic District: Then & Now Photos and Tours Map.