The Church That Made It Against all Odds

On the corner of West 10th and Bleecker Streets was a stately church. Throngs of people, wearing the finest clothes their meager earnings could afford, came in and out for morning or evening masses, and hourly lectures by guest speakers on literature, politics and history. The Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was always crowded no matter the time of day, serving as a home for Black worshipers who were hungry for knowledge and a sense of community.

Members also were searching for something else: freedom to exist without discrimination and brutality, a regular occurrence for African Americans in the 19th century.

“The church created a university within the center of the community,” Reverend Malcolm Byrd, the current pastor of Mother AME Zion Church, said.

There’s barely any trace of the church or its history in the Greenwich Village neighborhood today.

Nearly 160 years later since the church was located here, a walk around the area includes trendy boutiques, quirky coffee shops and dog walkers. But that part of Greenwich Village was once referred to as “Little Africa,” where one church became the center of the Black community.

“The church was the center of life for Black people; one space where Black lives didn’t revolve around whiteness,” said Byrd, the current leader of the church, now located in Harlem.

Founded by a bishop named James Varick, Mother AME Zion was first established when a group of African Americans formally voted to leave the white John Street Methodist Church in 1820, to form their own Black congregation elsewhere, where they weren’t segregated or treated as inferior.

“Without question, this was the only option for African American leadership,” said Byrd, who sees the Little Africa church as the first step towards liberation for Black New Yorkers.

After the Civil War, a wave of formerly enslaved people from the South, migrated to northern states. Little Africa became one of the final destinations for Black people searching for a better life.

Although slavery had been abolished in New York in 1827, African Americans were still subjected to racism. Mother AME Zion was born as a church in the traditional sense, but it represented something larger for the Black community: an anti-slavery institution within a church, explains Byrd.

Besides the AME church, Little Africa was also home to one of the first African Free Schools on Mulberry Street. Over 500 children of formerly enslaved people were given an education, writing essays, and putting on plays tackling the very recent trauma of slavery.

The first Black theater, the African Theater, also originated in Little Africa. With 25 cents, the community, excluded from white venues, could enjoy plays and ballet performances, presented by Black casts led by William Alexander Brown, one of the country’s first Black playwrights.

“For the most part it was very integrated,” said Dena Tasse-Winter about Little Africa. Tasse-Winter, the director of research and preservation at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, advocates for the protection of historic buildings in the neighborhood.

By the 1860s, Little Africa was home to a quarter of the city’s 12,500 Black residents. New York’s first “black and tan” saloons, where African American and white people could mix freely in public venues.

After World War I, Italian immigrants moved into the neighborhood, displacing the Black community, which migrated Uptown. Now, if one wants to know about Little Africa, a trip to Harlem is the only way to find out.

“Serving the community is paramount,” said Arilla Whitehurst, a longtime member of Mother Zion and curator of the church’s museum.

As Black New Yorkers migrated to Harlem, the church followed them. By the 1910s, Black people were 70% of the Uptown neighborhood’s population. Mother AME Zion settled on West 137th Street in 1925.

“The history of Little Africa was definitely lost by not protecting and remembering the neighborhood,” said Tasse-Winter about Greenwich Village. Although nothing is left in the neighborhood downtown, the history of the church has been kept alive for decades through oral history and the church museum that opened in 2019, containing artefacts from the past five locations of the church.

The museum is in a small room in the basement of the Harlem church, where there are old pictures of the former AME bishops, church ushers and choir members, an old Bible, manumission papers and Varick’s tomb.

Whitehurst pointed out three small boxes containing the ashes from a mortgage burning ceremony in 1985. “We as a black race were never able to own anything,” she said. The ceremony was to celebrate the long-awaited ownership over the church building. “We could finally keep our faith and keep a place.”

“The Church is not the building; that’s why we survived,” Byrd said. “a church that made it against all odds.”

About the author(s)

Cecilia is a full time MS student from the United Kingdom.