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Beyond the Village and Back: Harlem’s St. James Presbyterian Church

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 St. James Presbyterian Church at 409 West 141st Street, on the corner of St. Nicholas Avenue, stands on the incline of a hill looking eastward over Harlem. The commanding, 1904 neo-Gothic structure boasts an ornate bell tower, visible from the nearby St. Nicholas Park and the City College of New York. While the striking building has graced this location for well over a century, the church’s history actually extends much further back, descending from the Shiloh Presbyterian Church. Shiloh was a leader in the abolitionist movement and a part of the Underground Railroad. For decades, it was led by a series of radical black ministers, including one Greenwich Villager who led the church’s response to the deadly Draft Riots of 1863, and who preached from the pulpit right here on Sixth Avenue in our neighborhood.

St. James Presbyterian Church, 2016. Photo courtesy of Google.

What is now the St. James Presbyterian Church has had lived multiple lives, under multiple names, over the course of its history. Its founding congregation, composed of members of the former Shiloh Presbyterian Church, organized St. James on April 26, 1895. At this time, the church was led by Reverend Pierce Butler Thompkins, and located at the Odd Fellows Hall at 108 West 32nd Street. Later, it moved to 211 West 32nd Street, but was soon displaced by the construction of Pennsylvania Station. Steadily moving uptown, by 1903 St. James had arrived at 359 West 51st Street, and then to a newly built church building at 59 West 137th Street in Harlem. Dedicated in 1915 and designed by Ludlow & Peabody, this is now the home of the Rendall Memorial Presbyterian Church.

St. James Presbyterian Church, 1925. Photo courtesy of the New York Transit Museum via Urban Archive.

In 1927, St. James finally moved to its current home on 141st Street, a building constructed just over twenty years before as the Lenox Presbyterian Church. St. James was one of many black congregations to migrate to Harlem in the 1920s just as the Harlem Renaissance was taking off. In its early decades here, the church was led by Reverend William Lloyd Imes, who served from 1925 until 1943 and grew the church membership to 2,000.

Since then, St. James has founded a number of community, outreach, and choral initiatives, including the Harlem School of the Arts. Now operating out of a neighboring building, this school was developed by Dorothy Maynor, an acclaimed operatic soprano who was married to Reverend Shelby Rooks, Reverend Imes’ successor. Barred from a career in the opera because of her race, Maynor founded the organization in the basement of St. James, growing it into the pioneering arts and social justice institution it is today.

To truly understand St. James’ history and its connection to Greenwich Village, however, we have to go even farther back than its founding in 1895, all the way to 1822. It was this year that the Shiloh Presbyterian Church was founded on Rose Street in Lower Manhattan as the First Colored Presbyterian Church. Its founder, Samuel Cornish, also started the country’s first black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal. In 1824, the church built a sanctuary at 119 Elm Street (today’s Lafayette Street, near Canal Street), but shortly thereafter fell into debt and had to sell the property. Seven years later, in 1831, Shiloh moved to Frankfurt Street, in the “old Swamp church,” where it stayed for the next two decades. During this time, from the 1830s to 1847, Theodore Wright, a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, served as the church’s minister. J.W.C. Pennington followed Wright as minister after his death, and by 1851, the church had moved to 61 Prince Street, at the intersection of present-day Lafayette Street (what is now called Lafayette Street originally only went as far south as Great Jones Street; it was extended south in the late 19th century, destroying dozens of buildings). From 1859 to 1863, and again from 1873 to 1882, Henry Highland Garnet served as the church’s leader. From its earliest days, Shiloh was part of the Underground Railroad.

Henry Highland Garnet was born into slavery in Maryland in 1815, but when he was about nine years old his family was granted permission to attend a funeral and used the opportunity to escape to Delaware, and then to New York City. Garnet, who attended the African Free School and the Phoenix High School of Colored Youth, began his career in abolitionism at an early age. While living with his family in Troy, New York, he worked as the pastor of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church for six years, publishing papers on religion, abolitionism, and the temperance movement. Afterward, he moved to New York, joining the American Anti-Slavery Society and speaking at abolitionist conferences. Garnet believed that negotiating abolition would have limited success, and in his 1843 “Address to the Slaves” Garnet urged slaves to rise up against their masters. By 1849, he assisted black individuals seeking to move to Mexico, Liberia, and the West Indies. He also endorsed black nationalism in the United States.

Reverend Garnet placed Shiloh at the center of the anti-slavery fight, leading boycotts of sugar, cotton, and rice, which were all products of slave labor. He collaborated with local newspapers to spread the abolitionist cause, and when John Brown was hung for inciting an armed slave uprising in Virginia on December 2, 1859, he organized a memorial service at Shiloh. Then, when the 1863 Draft Riots erupted, and hundreds of white working-class men launched racist attacks on the city’s black residents and businesses, Reverend Garnet and his church stepped in to help those who were impacted. As an appointee of the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People Suffering from the Late Riots, Garnet worked with other black ministers to complete three thousand visits to the homes individuals and families seeking aid.

“Report of the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People.” Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Garnet made history again in the final weeks of the Civil War, on February 12th, 1865, when he became the first African American to address the U.S. House of Representatives, at the invitation of President Lincoln on the president’s birthday. He delivered a sermon that honored the successes of the Union Army and the effort to abolish slavery.

Garnet’s wife, Sarah Smith Garnet, also championed abolitionism and women’s suffrage. Born on July 31st, 1831, she was the first female African American principal in the New York City school system, and in the late 1880s, she founded the Equal Suffrage League, the first suffrage organization begun by and dedicated to the suffrage of black women. She also participated in developing the Woman’s Loyal League of New York and Brooklyn in 1892 and was elected superintendent of the suffrage department of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, which joined forces with the National Council of Women in 1905.

442-458 Sixth Avenue (R-L). 450 Sixth Avenue is the fifth building from the right.

Throughout much of Garnet’s second period of leadership, from 1873 to 1882, the Shiloh church was located at 140 Sixth Avenue (today’s 450 Sixth Avenue) in the Greenwich Village Historic District. The heart of the city’s largest black community was then 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.” Shiloh operated out of the Sixth Avenue building from 1875 to 1879.

Meanwhile, Garnet himself lived in a number of addresses throughout the Village. According to New York City directories, he resided at 183 Bleecker Street from 1868 to at least 1869. Then, from 1870 to 1873, he resided at 185 Bleecker Street, where the Freedmen’s Bank was also located. Garnet later moved to 102 West 3rd Street (then known as Amity Street) from 1873 to 1879. Finally, he moved to 175 MacDougal Street, in the Greenwich Village Historic District, which remained his residence from 1879 until shortly before his death in 1882.

Sarah Smith Garnet. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After being located on Sixth Avenue for four years, Shiloh moved again to 167 West 26th Street, where it stayed from 1879 to 1888, before moving to Five Points, Midtown, and finally Harlem. Here it joined a growing collection of black churches once rooted in Greenwich Village (see here, here, and here), that together maintain and enrich the lengthy and far-reaching legacy of our neighborhoods and communities.

For more information on the Shiloh Presbyterian Church, Henry Highland Garnet, Sarah Smith Garnet, and other sites associated with the Village’s African American history and social change movements, please see our Civil Rights and Social Justice MapGreenwich Village Historic District 1969-2019: Photos and Tours, and the African American History tour in East Village Building Blocks.

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