The war for liberty against the British created a battle-tested cohort of African American and White faith-based leaders in Harlem who developed an ardor for extending freedom.
The African American slaves in Harlem gained important allies in the form of John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. After the war, Jay wrote The Federalist Papers with Hamilton and James Madison to promote the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Jay was also long sympathetic to slaves and famously said, “Real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others.” Hamilton, the aide-de-camp to General George Washington, was very sympathetic, because he himself was perhaps the son of a part-Black mother in the West Indies. Later, W.E.B. DuBois would claim him as “our own Hamilton.” In his biography of Hamilton Ron Chernow observed that Hamilton, except for a stretch of disillusionment after the Revolutionary war, was a quite religious Presbyterian, even writing several hymns, and that his beliefs underlay an ardent abolitionism.
Jay asked Hamilton and other allies to help create the African Manumission Society in 1785 for the purpose of educating Africans and gaining their freedom. The Society then founded the African Free School in 1787. As governor of New York in 1799, Jay presided over passage of legislation that abolished slavery by its gradual phasing out in the state.
In 1801 the West Indian-born Hamilton began work in Harlem on his own estate, The Grange. He also founded The New York Evening Post that had dual purposes similar to those of the African Manumission Society of extending liberty and opportunity to succeed in life.
A new generation of African American religious leaders were able to take advantage of the freer atmosphere in the early decades of the 19th Century. An extraordinary religious leader with New York roots at this time was Pierre Toussaint (1766 – 1853). In 1787 he came as slave to the city and worked as a hairdresser. Very successful, he raised funds for the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mott and Prince Streets. After gaining his freedom in 1811, he led a life devoted to charity and support of the Catholic church. His significance for the Catholic Church was reaffirmed when Cardinal John O’Conner moved Toussaint’s body in 1990 to a place beside the archbishops of New York in the crypt under the altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral’s on Fifth Avenue.
The movement of African Americans founding their own churches also started in New York City at this time. Many of these churches later moved to Harlem. In 1795 Peter Williams, Sr., an ex-slave, led a group of African Americans out of the John Street Methodist church to found the American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1796. They built their first building in 1801. However, the church continued cordial relations with the John Street Church and a white pastor oversaw the congregation until 1820 when it became independent of the Methodist denomination.
In 1808 African Americans who had left First Baptist Church and Ethiopian sea merchants formed the Abyssinian Baptist Church. The legendary female abolitionist Sojourner Truth worshipped there for a time. The church moved to Harlem in 1923.
In 1809 Peter Williams, Jr., a gifted orator established the Free African Church of St. Phillip, which became St. Phillip’s Protestant Episcopal Church (with its first building in 1819 and a move to Harlem in 1910). At about the same time African Americans at Trinity Church started meeting separately.
The Reformed Dutch Low Church started a Sunday school in 1816 that had a large program for African Americans. Up to 1823, the only church in Harlem was the original Dutch church that met at two sites. Now, new churches started to open up in Harlem.
African Americans and their White supporters demanded that churches allow mixed seating and mixed leadership. As the 19th Century advanced, the demands came to include putting slave owners out of the church. In 1823 after meetings in the local school of the rural village of Manhattanville, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church opened with a policy to accept all races. The church also started the first free, mixed race nondenominational school. In the same area The Friends Meeting House was an abolitionist hotbed. Many escaped slaves who lived in the woods of Harlem attended these churches.
However, even after New York State announced it was abolishing slavery in 1827, freed local African Americans found a new set of barriers as they confronted a set of discriminatory northern policies and laws that became known as “Jim Crow.” Further, slavery’s phase out was slow, and New York still allowed slave catchers from states that still had slavery to seize and take back escaped slaves. So, several African American and White churches became part of the Underground Railroad that smuggled escaped slaves into safe harbors. Mother AME Zion Church became known as the “Freedom Church” because of its participation in the Underground Railroad. By 1830 the 13, 976 African Americans in New York City, most born here, provided a relatively large pool into which escaped slaves could hide.
In the 1830s White abolitionists who lived downtown came against violent opposition and for safety some, including evangelical Lewis Tappan and his family, joined a growing stream of settlers to Harlem. 1837 was a magic year for population gain in Harlem. The New York and Harlem Rail Road extended its tracks for horse drawn trains to Harlem, making it a thirty minute commute to downtown.
The increasing significance of Harlem as a destination of African Americans moving from downtown was caught in one of the first popular song genres that arose out of African American culture. Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice made popular the black-face minstrel songs that remained a vaudeville staple, reaching its peak in 1927 with Al Jolson’s famous black face performance of “Mammy” in the first full-length talking movie The Jazz Singer. In 1834 Rice created the hit song, “Life in New York, or, the Major’s Lane,” for use with the “shuffle dance.” The song, part of a genre called “Ethiopian Operas,” was a tuneful ride on an omnibus from Five Points at the foot of Mott Street to Harlem (note: George Dixon also claimed credit for the song).
Rice’s song “Zip Coon” was perhaps his biggest hit. To the tune of “Turkey in the Straw” played with a mixed style from the African American banjo and Irish fiddle, Rice sang about a foolish dandy named Zip Coon. He also sang about another African American character named Jim Crow from the South.
Click to a 1926 version of Zip Coon
While Whites entertained themselves with African American style music at the expense of African Americans, some oppressed African Americans used the stereotypical entertainment figures as an opportunity to work subversion to the racist system. If Whites believed African American slaves were stupid, childlike incompetents, then some slaves reasoned that they could live up to their reputation by doing shoddy work for their slave masters. They “samboo’ed” the masters with pretenses of illness, injuries, mixed up instructions, breakages of tools, leaving the harvest out in the rain, and the like. It was a strategy of resistance by the powerless, though it came with the price of trapping African Americans into a stereotype. However, slaves also showed their mettle with over 250 revolts, runaways, arson, murder, the Underground Railroad, independent churches, a growing business and professional class , and the development of a sermonic style that became so powerful as to persuade a whole nation to change its ways.
In 1839 African Americans founded a branch of Trinity Church called the Chapel of the Intercession which eventually moved to 152nd Street and Tenth Avenue. Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregational and Catholic churches with African Americans were also founded at this time either in Harlem or downtown and later moved to Harlem. The Dutch Reformed church remained the most prominent church in Harlem before the Civil War. The segregated Dutch Reformed churches of Harlem set a pattern of helping African Americans while remaining segregated. In 1841 slavery was finally ended in New York.
In 1843 the all-White First Baptist Church (later called Mt. Morris Baptist Church) founded Bethel Chapel for African Americans at East 123 Street and Second Avenue. In the same year Mother Zion AME started its East 117th Street mission called Little Zion Church with sixty attenders. The Dutch church opened its building to a Baptist congregation until they could manage on their own.
After 1845, the Catholic population with new churches grew fast in Harlem due to immigration. Harlem African American Catholics also felt encouraged by the new presence of Catholicism in their neighborhood but insulted that most of the Catholic churches and schools were closed to them. African American Catholics received encouragement from a few remarkable priests like Father Alphonse LaFont, the pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church and Father Thomas Farrell of St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village. In 1846 LaFont opened a school for Black and White kids for a few years before it was shut down under pressure from the Archdiocese.
While the Catholic Church struggled with acceptance of African Americans, the First Dutch Church was also finding the new poor immigrants undesirable neighbors, and so the church eventually moved out of East Harlem. It left a small chapel at 121st Street, which became the worship home of African-Americans in the area.
In 1847 slave Mahommah Baquaqua jumped ship in New York City. Born about 1824 in present-day Benin, Africa, Baquaqua was sent as a slave to Brazil in the 1840s then sold to a ship captain. After his arrival in New York, Baquaqua converted to Christianity, attended college for preparation to evangelize Africa, and became a lecturer. In 1854 he published the Biography of Mahommah G. Baquaqua, a native of Zoogoo, in the interior of Africa. He recalled his arrival to the city.
“The first words of English that my two companions and myself ever learned was F-r-e-e; we were taught it by an Englishman on board [the ship], and oh! how many times did I repeat it, over and over again. This same man told me a great deal about New York City…We all had learned, that at New York there was no slavery; that it was a free country and that if we once got there we had nothing to dread from our cruel slave masters, and we were all most anxious to get there…[After we arrived], that was that the happiest time in my life, even now my heart thrills with joyous delight when I think of that voyage, and believe that the God of all mercies ordered all for my good; how thankful was I.”
While in a Christian college in upstate New York, Baquaqua composed a poem that stands as one of the most poignant religious verses from this period of American history:
"Oh! Africa, my native land,
When shall I see thee, meekly stand,
Beneath the banner of my God,
And governed by His Holy word?
When shall I see the oppressor's rod
Plucked from his hand, my gracious God?
Oh! when shall I my brethren see,
Enjoy the sweets of LIBERTY?"
In the meantime, not all was well with the Dutch church in Harlem. As Dutch assimilated and moved out of Harlem, the church was not effective in reaching out to new neighbors among African Americans and immigrant groups. It had trouble paying its bills and gradually sold off the rest of its land. On July 7, 1853, that First Church of Harlem passed a resolution that “the property known as the Negro Burying Ground be sold to the highest bidder.” It was bought for $3,000, and soon after landfill covered the old cemetery. The Dutch era for African Americans was truly over. African Americans were looking ahead to a greater liberation.
In 1853 at Abyssinian Baptist Church after singing her hymn “I am pleading for my people, a poor, downtrodden race,” Sojourner Truth let loose a controversial speech criticizing racism, Whites, and African American churches and their male pastors. An African American Catholic woman also issued a famous letter challenging the pope to help African American Catholics.
Harriet Thompson wrote Pope Pius IX in 1853 that the Catholic Church was neglecting African Americans and threatening their souls. At this time the New York Archbishop was building a whites-only Catholic school system. However, Thompson mentioned by name four priests that were advocates of African Americans.
In 1854 the Church of the Annunciation was founded on Convent Avenue (later moving to West 131st Street and Old Broadway). St. Joseph’s Church was founded in 1860 as the Church of the Holy Family on the corner of 125th Street and 9th Avenue (Morningside Drive). It is the oldest church building still standing in Harlem. The German language church put on the first Corpus Christi procession in the city in 1861. Sacred Heart at Broadway and 135th Street was Harlem’s first college.
The Civil War (1860-1865) drew 166 regiments of African Americans into the Union Army. It was the occasion for the terrible 1863 Draft Riots that also involved some anti-African American attacks in Harlem. However, the attacks downtown were much more severe involving multiple lynchings. Consequently, some African Americans migrated to the Harlem area for safety.
As he considered moving to Harlem, the abolitionist Protestant cartoonist Thomas Nast provided provided some of the most famous editorial cartoons upholding the human dignity of African Americans against the claims of slavocrats. His relocation to Harlem in 1864 with its African American population and lingering Dutch traditions resonated in his work as a cartoonist.
In his famous “Emancipation” cartoon published on January 24, 1863, he contrasted the lovely family life of free African Americans to the violence and degradation visited upon slave families. At the end of the Civil War in 1865 he pictured that he trusted African Americans as much as Whites. In fact his portrayals show that he didn’t much trust White Roman Catholics because of their participation in lynching of African Americans in New York City and Mormons who used derogatory stereotypes to relegate African Americans to a subsidiary position in their church (few joined).
He drew upon Dutch traditions as well as his German background to provide some of the typical Christmas images that we use today. In a 1863 cartoon he provided the visual image of writer Washington Irving’s and seminary professor Clement Clark Moore’s recasting of the Dutch idea of Saint Nicholas (Sinterklass) into Santa Claus.
After the Civil War, African Americans from the South also increased their arrivals into Harlem and elsewhere in the city. African American church attendance grew but was hindered by racism. By 1867 an anonymous author, perhaps Father Farrell, wrote in an article in the Catholic Mirror published in Maryland, that there were 1500 African American Catholics in New York with less than 100 attending Mass because there were few church options for them.
By 1872 Harlem had grown to 50,000 people. African American church baptisms in the Harlem River became a common sight. Some downtown churches responded to the new influx by establishing new churches. In 1869 evangelical leader S. H. Tyng of Trinity Church laid the cornerstone for Trinity Church in Harlem at Fifth Avenue and 125th Street. The abolitionist Nast lived next door to the church.
After the Civil War, Nast foresaw America in his “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving” (1869) as the place where everybody had a place at the table. However, his hostile portrayals of Roman Catholics and Mormons certainly undermined that vision.
Churches that later moved to Harlem also were founded in this period: St. Luke’s AME Zion and Mt. Gilead Baptist Church, Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, Mercy Street Baptist Church (which later became Metropolitan Baptist Church), St. Thomas the Apostle Church and Salem Memorial Mission. At Mt. Gilead the activist Rev. L. B. Tursky became known as “the Roaring Lion of Harlem.” Rev. Frederick Asbury Cullen founded one of the first recorded African American storefront churches in 1881, Salem Memorial Mission, in a cellar with three people and a 19 cents Sunday offering. It grew to become Salem Methodist Church, one of the largest congregations in New York City with notable members like singer Marian Anderson and Cullen’s adopted son and poet Countee Cullen.
New immigrants also came to Harlem from downtown. In 1873 twelve Jews founded the first uptown synagogue, Congregation Hand-in-Hand, which later (1888) became Temple Israel of Harlem and adhered to Reform Judaism. They appreciatively imbibed the egalitarianism of the community and set up a synagogue without a separation of man and women and with an organ.
In 1878-1880 the El lines on Second, Third and Eighth Avenues were extended to Harlem. By the 1880s the second largest concentration of African Americans in the city was around 2nd and 3rd Avenue below East 125th Street. Traveling through the area, the photo-journalist and reformer Jacob Riis observed that it was poor but “clean and orderly.”
The Catholic priest Farrell reached from the grave to force the Archdiocese’s hand to help African Americans. He left his savings to the Catholic Church to build a church for African Americans; otherwise, the money would go to an orphanage. Consequently, the Catholic hierarchy was persuaded to build Church of St. Benedict the Moor, the first African American Catholic Church in the city as well as the northern United States in 1883. Today, the church stands at West 53rd Street. Farrell asked in his last will and testament that his grave would remind Catholics “to love liberty and to love intelligence and try to extend their blessings to every member of the human family.”
In 1885 the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was established for Italian immigrants on East 115th Street.
In 1889 the Dutch Reformed church of Harlem moved to Third Avenue and 121st Street. The church called itself the “Collegiate Reformed Church of Harlem” because it had multiple church meeting sites for one congregation. Although the Collegiate Reformed Church in Harlem remained segregated, Booker T. Washington gave a sermon to the congregation. Washington also spoke at several other White Harlem churches including the Lenox Avenue Unitarian Church in 1893. In 1894 Washington implored his African American audience at the Harlem Casino to make Harlem their central home. “Stop staying here and there and everywhere and begin to live somewhere,” he said.
At this time religious urban reformers had a tremendous impact on Harlem’s physical structure. For example, the evangelical Christian journalist Jacob Riis publicized to good effect the terrible living conditions in the tenements. A multi-faith coalition of reformers forced mandates for fire escapes, windows in every room, running water and toilets.
Ragtime came to Harlem in the 1897 through St. Louis singer Tom Turpin’s hit “Harlem Rag.” Around 1910, Harlem preacher’s kid James P. Johnson invented “stride” which led to jazz. His “The Harlem Strut” portrayed a bouncy spirit in Harlem. Harlem got a reputation as a haven of last resort for husbands cast out of their homes by wives for various sins. The phenomenon was popularized by the 1899 song, “You can take your trunk and go to Harlem!” Johnson warned (promised?) that there were “Harlem Choc’late Babes on Parade.” His pupil was the deacon’s son at Abyssinian Baptist Church, Fats Waller.
Click to hear a rendition of George Tingley's "Harlem Rag"
1904 ushered in another leap for Harlem’s population with the uptown extension of the subway. Although Jewish and Italian immigrants continued their move into the neighborhood, Harlem became a majority Black in 1904.
In 1906 Congregation Ohab Zekek moved from the Lower East Side to 116th Street and Fifth Avenue. This Orthodox congregation was famous for its Cantor Joseph Rosenblatt. The following year Congregation Ansche Chesed was built on 114th Street and 7th Avenue. It helped to found Conservative Judaism.
In 1912 St Mark the Enoch Church on West 138th St became the first Roman Catholic Church in Harlem to desegregate. It took another two decades, for another Catholic church to open up to African Americans. St. Aloysius closed briefly and reopened as a mission church to African Americans on West 132nd Street.
In 1914 Mother AME Zion moved to Harlem. The move of one of the oldest and most significant African American churches in the nation signaled that Harlem was destined to become the African American center of New York City and the nation. In the same year St. James Presbyterian Church also came to Harlem.
In 1915 America’ first eminent African American photographer James Van Der Zee (1886-1983) converted to Catholicism and took on many photographic assignments for the church. The Harlem Renaissance’s most famous photographer was deeply religious. His photos not only covered the Catholic faith but also large Protestant churches, storefronts, street preachers, religious rites and everyday faith of Harlem residents. Some scholars see Van Der Zee as a cultural icon and others as a chronicler of the rising African American middle class. The essence of the man though lay in his faith which revealed its centrality in his careful photography, often on his own dime, of African Americans of faith.
Religion was a significant theme in the first movies by African Americans. In 1918 Oscar Mischeaux (1884-1951) produced “Homesteader,” the first full length all Black movie. Mischeaux’s mother was deeply religious and the family went to Mother AME Zion Church for services. His Mom also took him to see Booker T. Washington whenever he was speaking in town. However, the son resented his mother’s devotional methods in the face of oppression.
Mischeaux thought that religion kept his mother subservient and displaced her attention off her family onto Jesus or the preacher. He thought that some preachers were unscrupulous in taking advantage of his mother’s generosity, leaving her family hungry at night. Mischeaux vividly remembered how once his Mom beat him for criticizing the ethics of one of the preachers.
The movie maker had his revenge in 1925 with his movie “Body and Soul“ and its savage portrayal of an African American preacher, based on his childhood experience of listening to a preacher sermonize on “Dry Bones in the Valley."
Jews were still large presence in Harlem. One day a synagogue would open; the next day an African American church. Two of the most significant openings were in 1919 Institutional Synagogue across the street from Congegation Ohab Zekek and in 1923 Abyssinian Baptist Church move to Harlem on 138th Street.
In 1930 the NYC Council of Churches enumerated African American churches by walking the street, much like A Journey did last Fall. We will compare Harlem churches in 1930 to those of today in a separate article.
By the 1940s almost nothing was left of the early Dutch days of African American life. Some long time residents could point to an alley way where the old Negro Burial Ground used to be. Then, that was gone too. In 1947 an MTA bus depot was built over the spot.
Some of the old bad ways disappeared too. In 1957 the Collegiate Reformed Church desegregated.
As if to make up for lost opportunities, the church threw its door open to the founders of the Boys Choir of Harlem in 1968 and hired its first African American pastor in 1978. Today, another African American, Patricia A. Singletary, serves as pastor.
In 2009, the church that succeeded the First Church of Harlem — the Elmendorf Reformed Church — with its pastor, Rev. Patricia Singletary, took up the banner to commemorate the religious history of Harlem and to preserve and protect its African Burial Ground for researchers and the African American community. Elmendorf Church is using its claims to ownership of the burial ground to pressure the city to search for the exact location of the burial ground and to preserve it. The city is planning on rebuilding the Willis Avenue Bridge and the 126th Street bus terminal; the burial site may be underneath one them, probably the bus terminal.
The city’s plans to complete a rebuild of the bridge in 2012 and the 126th Bush Terminal starting in 2014 has raised the hopes of African American historians that we will finally recover the exact site of a second early slave burial ground. There may also be a sacred American Indian site with clam shells from the Lenape tribes of Wiechquaesgeoks or Siwanays or another tribe.
As Harlem is changing once again, African Americans are going back to Harlem’s earliest history to make clear that Harlem history has always included an African American religious heritage.
Oscar Mischeaux presents "A preacher is found out" from "Body and Soul" (1925)
Re-published on January 15, 2013 at 7:00 AM as "Harlem Before and After The Emancipation Proclamation" with the note: "...on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free..." Abraham Lincoln, January 1, 1863.
Unless otherwise noted, illustrations with permission of the Library of Congress or from the author's private collection.
Don Richardson's 1926 78 RPM recording of "Zip Coon," cc.
For further reading on African Americans and the Civil War see:
David Goldfield’s America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, George C. Rable’s God’s Almost Chosen People: A Religious History of the American Civil War, and Harry S. Stout’s Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War.
On Catholic African Americans see Thomas J. Shelley's Village Catholics and Cyprian Davis's The History of Black Catholics in the U.S.
On the history of African Americans in Harlem see Jonathan Gill's Harlem.