In the 227 years since its birth, Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church — the oldest Black church in New York State — has served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, a haven for Black artists and intellectuals during the Harlem Renaissance and an amphitheater for civil rights activism during the 1950s and ‘60s.
Tucked among a row of tenements on West 137th Street between Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevards, the imposing yet understated church is on a block unscathed by the insatiable tide of Harlem-hungry real estate developers. The building, designed by one of the first licensed Black architects in the nation, George Washington Foster, stands as one of few examples of Gothic Revival architecture nestled in the heart of Harlem.
But an aging congregation base, deferred maintenance, insufficient funding and a rapidly gentrifying Harlem threaten to capsize the church in the face of mounting financial distress. “Mother Zion lives week to week like the people on the block,” said the Rev. Malcolm J. Byrd, the senior pastor of the church.
Churches nationwide are experiencing dwindling turnouts at Sunday service, now that religious institutions regularly compete with brunch reservations, farmers markets, sports games and sleeping in for the Sunday morning slot. Mother A.M.E. Zion, which closed its doors for two years during the pandemic, also lost many of its congregants to Covid-19. Not to mention, much of its congregation base, New York’s working-class African American community, can no longer afford the neighborhood.
“The history of Harlem churches is bound up with the history of cities and the changes that happen within the cities,” said Prof. Wallace Best, who teaches African American studies and religion at Princeton University and is writing a book on Black churches in Harlem. “A lot of these churches are emptying out and that has to do with demographic patterns.”
The church received landmark status in 1993, and in January, it received a $200,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an infusion of support intended to establish an endowment fund that the church will draw on the interest from for routine maintenance and preservation. But the church will be unable to financially sustain itself and uphold its legacy of tending to the spiritual, political, and social needs of its community, without a dramatic uptick in its membership and donation flow.
On any given Sunday, a few dozen or so churchgoers, primarily a mixture of older congregants and curious tourists, fill the pews. In 1971, about 8,000 paraders marched up Seventh Avenue, now known as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, during the sesquicentennial celebration of the church whose conference at the time boasted a citywide membership of 20,000 people, according to The New York Times.
The First Sunday After Second-class Treatment
The very first Sunday service of the church was held in 1796 in a cabinetmaker’s shop in Lower Manhattan on Cross Street, flanked by Orange and Mulberry Streets. A group of former slaves, dissatisfied with their second-class treatment in the predominantly white John Street Methodist Church, left to start Zion church under the leadership of its first bishop, James Varick. A 19th-century historian wrote of John Street Methodist that “the colored members were not permitted to come to the sacrament (hold Communion) until all the white members, even children, had communed.” In 1820, the church’s members formally voted to withdraw themselves from the white Methodist Church denomination to form an entirely separate conference known as African Methodist Episcopal Zion.
Numerous leaders of the early 19th-century Zion Church were outspoken advocates of the abolitionist movement. Sojourner Truth, a former slave, evangelist, and abolitionist, upon escaping her bondage and reaching New York City in 1829, joined Mother A.M.E. Zion. The A.M.E. Zion Church Conference membership boasts a distinguished roster of abolitionist luminaries, including Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Colloquially referred to as the “Freedom Church,” A.M.E. Zion was a sanctuary of liberation during the 19th century, an era of rampant oppression and inequality.
The flourishing of Mother A.M.E. Zion is intricately tied to Black migratory patterns in the city. The 137th Street location is the church’s sixth home. After outgrowing its humble beginnings in the cabinetmaker’s shop, the church constructed its first edifice in 1800 on a 35-by-45-foot plot of land on the corner of Church and Leonard Streets in Lower Manhattan. In 1825, Mother A.M.E. Zion purchased six plots of land near 86th Street. to use as a cemetery in a budding Seneca Village, a predominantly Black, middle-class community established the same year.
“A.M.E. Zion was one of the first landowners and the first two individuals to buy land in the village were connected to the church,” said Meredith B. Linn, an assistant professor of historical archaeology at Bard College. In 1853, Mother A.M.E. Zion established a satellite church in the village to serve the community’s growing Black population. In 1857, the community was uprooted and forced to move farther north and west under state-authorized eminent domain for the construction of Central Park.
Much of the city’s working-class Black community migrated to “Little Africa,” present-day Greenwich Village, after the violence of the 1863 draft riots in Lower Manhattan. In the footsteps of its congregation base, the church relocated to its third location in a former Dutch Reformed Church on the northeast corner of West 10th and Bleecker streets in 1864.
The construction of Pennsylvania Station in 1910 and the widening of Sixth Avenue in 1926, coupled with fierce competition for housing with recently arrived Italian immigrants in Little Africa, forced many of the neighborhood’s Black families to uproot once again and head farther uptown. Mother A.M.E. Zion moved to the Upper West Side in 1904, then to its fifth home in a former Episcopal Church on West 136th Street in Harlem and to its final location on West 137th Street in 1925.
Mother A.M.E. Zion arrived in Harlem when numerous Black families were moving from the South to capitalize on the expanding economic and creative prospects in the neighborhood; that period is now known as the Harlem Renaissance. Coupled with increased racial tension and discrimination, the Renaissance engendered a new collective consciousness, sense of unity and political culture among residents, which was formalized through the Black church.
The Rev. James W. Brown and his successor, the Rev. Benjamin C. Robeson, established Mother A.M.E. Zion as an institution of spiritual worship and political activism.
Mr. Robeson, who led the church from 1936 to 1963, preached the doctrine of civil rights activism, which drew notable Harlem residents of the likes of W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes to Mother A.M.E. Zion. Under the leadership of the Rev. George McMurray who succeeded Mr. Robeson, the church created numerous programs devoted to economic and social rehabilitation.
In the 1970s, the church opened the James L. Varick Community Center, and established a community board to operate the center, which provided day care, mental health care, after-school programs and education for women experiencing homelessness. In 2015, the board could no longer afford the community center and sold the building.
The church’s interior still reflects its illustrious history. In the basement, a small museum houses its rare documents and old photographs. The remains of Mr. Varick rest below the sanctuary. The 1000-seat sanctuary was constructed like an auditorium, and that’s purposeful, said Professor Best. “The building was built in recognition that it would have to meet the full needs of the community.”
‘I Pray for Him’
But another evolution has come and this time, the church won’t just move, it will die.
Much of the housing units, even the so-called affordable ones, that have sprung up in the neighborhood are financially out of reach for Harlem’s working-class residents.
Although North Harlem’s overall population climbed by 15 percent from 2010 to 2020, its Black population fell by more than 10 percentage points, to 56.7 percent, from 67.2 percent.
“If you wake up in the morning and look out your window, you’d think you’re living downtown,” said Amelia Montgomery, 81, a longtime Harlem resident and member of Mother A.M.E. Zion. She and her late husband, Dabney Montgomery, a Tuskegee airman and civil rights activist, bought a brownstone a few blocks from the church in 1978. She also contributed to the efforts to establish the nearby Dorrance Brooks Square Historic District, a rowhouse-rich area between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard.
Ms. Montgomery, intimately tied to the church since the moment of her birth, after her mother went into labor during a Friday night prayer meeting at Mother A.M.E. Zion, hopes Mr. Byrd will be the catalyst the church needs to steer it toward a sustainable future amid a crossroad of tradition and change. “I pray for him every day, and whatever I can do to restore the spirit of Mother Zion, I’m doing that,” Ms. Montgomery said.
Mr. Byrd, a licensed A.M.E. Zion minister since he was 14, said the congregation’s sustenance cannot rest solely on the pious routine of Sunday worship. “Black people need more than a Sunday morning to sustain themselves. The church has to be a multifaceted place for them,” said Mr. Byrd. Since joining the church in 2019, Mr. Byrd has instituted several social programs, including health workshops. He’s developing a G.E.D. program and is exploring more creative ideas, like adding a coffee shop in the church.
Mr. Byrd has participated in protests against the destruction of the neighborhood’s historic properties, arguing that many of Harlem’s relics are demolished because they do not have protected status. “If you tear down the people’s landmarks, if you tear down the people’s memorials, there will come a time when there will be generations that will never know how great the people were,” Mr. Byrd said.
“Harlem is remarkably unmarked,” Professor Best argued. For example, Harlem’s Lafayette Theater was “rated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s staff as of ‘outstanding significance,’ but it was never designated,” the former Streetscapes columnist Christopher Gray wrote. Lafayette Theater, a 1,500-seat Renaissance-style theater built in 1912, became the first major theater in New York to desegregate in 1913. A century later, the building was demolished and replaced by an eight-story luxury apartment building called the Lafayette.
In recent years, grass roots organizing by groups like “Save Harlem Now” have rallied residents to demand that the Landmark Preservation Commission do more to preserve keepsakes from Harlem’s celebrated early 20th century history. Since its founding in 2015, the group has successfully obtained protected status for some Harlem landmarks including the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library.
Nonetheless, some Black churches have downsized — viewing selling their brick-and-mortar houses of worship to luxury-apartment developers with deep pockets as the only viable path forward. The Victorian Gothic architecture and stained glass windows that once made up Metropolitan Community United Methodist Church, which dates back to 1871, was demolished in 2020, despite objections from parishioners and preservationists alike.
In 2017, Second Canaan Baptist Church sold its property to Level One Holdings to redevelop it into an eight-story condominium with a sanctuary on the lower level. First Ebenezer Baptist Church also sold its building in 2017, creating a new sanctuary on the first floor of the condominium constructed in its place.
“Churches in Harlem are confronting a changed neighborhood,” Professor Best said. “To ask what is the future of Black churches in Harlem is to ask what is the future of Black people in Harlem.”