Article by Aurora Ferrer. Photos and video by Aurora Ferrer and Kenneth Sousie
Between a row of tenements in the middle of West 137th Street, flanked by Lenox Avenue to the east and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard to the west, Mother African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Zion Church, New York City’s first black church, is showing signs of the wear and tear. Approaching the once elegant neo-Gothic church, which was completed nearly a century ago in 1925, visitors are greeted by unsightly aluminum accordion gates that are locked to prevent access to three sets of grand, bright red double doors. The building’s once pristine stone façade is stained.
Founded in 1796 by former slaves, many who migrated from the South to lower Manhattan, the church has served as a beacon of African American liberation and as a community anchor. It was a pivotal stop on the Underground Railroad, a meeting place for abolitionists including Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass. It also served as both a forum and refuge for black artists and intellectuals who were unwelcome at most white institutions during the Harlem Renaissance. Among them were sociologist, scholar and co-founder of the NAACP, W.E.B. Du Bois; actor and singer Paul Robeson (whose brother, Dr. Benjamin C. Robeson, was one of the church’s pastors); novelist, poet and playwright Langston Hughes; singer Marion Anderson; and educator and Civil Rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune. Throughout the 20th century, major Civil Rights organizations, including the NAACP, held their meetings there.
In the 1970s, the church opened the James Varick Community Center, named after its founder who was an abolitionist, educator, one of the first ordained African Americans in New York and the church’s first bishop. It provided daycare, mental health care, after-school programs, and education for women who experienced homelessness. The community center property was sold in 2015—a victim of dramatic recent demographic shifts in Harlem.
Indeed, Mother Zion is facing an increasingly gentrified Harlem, which has seen many of its middle-class and poor black population pushed out of the neighborhood. Empty pews, and until recently, the absence of young people, especially, have raised questions about the church’s ability to preserve its traditions and rich history.
Now, a millennial senior pastor is taking a page from the church’s storied past and is pursuing an activist approach to reviving Mother Zion’s fortunes.
The Rev. Malcolm J. Byrd, 36, a liberation theologian who was appointed last June, infuses sermons and events with a focus on what he calls a “new renaissance” for the black community of Harlem. Byrd emphasizes political, economic and social justice issues and the restoration of the “black excellence” the neighborhood enjoyed during the first Harlem Renaissance.
One of the goals Byrd has prioritized is educating the public about the profound significance of Mother Zion. The church has a museum in the basement that holds rare documents and photographs documenting the church’s history, as well as a crypt for Varick. Byrd has recently done interviews with media outlets like WPIX 11 and BronxNet. LastDecember, he commemorated the 223rd anniversary of the church’s founding during a sermon, with Reverend Al Sharpton as a guest speaker.
Byrd has also participated in protests against the destruction of the neighborhood’s unprotected historical properties. “Harlem is the most under-landmarked neighborhood in all of New York City, in all of the five boroughs,” he said. “Places like Lenox Terrace, the first modern apartment building, built in 1958, for the black middle-class in Harlem still have not received protected status from the NYC Landmarks Commission.” He names the Lafayette Theater and the Regency Ballroom, both once on Seventh Avenue (renamed Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard)—now lined with luxury apartment buildings and condominiums—as institutions torn down because of their lack of landmark status.
Byrd sees the problems as double pronged: the interests of real estate developers have been prioritized over preserving the community’s history and there are no black people on the Landmarks Commission. “My new push now is to landmark our most vulnerable spaces here in this community, but also push (Mayor Bill) de Blasio to put a black person on the Landmarks Commission, all the black history in this city, not one person of African descent on the Landmarks Commission.” Byrd believes the lack of cultural connection to Harlem by members of the commission makes them indifferent to preserving its history.
The most recent battle is brewing over Lenox Terrace, which developers are trying to expand by adding five high-rise luxury apartment buildings and retail spaces. The Olnick Organization, the developers of the project, have made requests to have the property re-zoned to accommodate their plans, and have been met with resistance by its current tenants and city representatives who believe this will destabilize longtime residents. Byrd believes there should be more affordable housing provided for the people of Harlem, like 99 year-old lifelong Mother Zion member Katherine Nichson. “I’m fighting any housing in this community that the average person who’s lived here for the last 40 years cannot afford to move into. If Miss Katherine Nichson, who’s been in this neighborhood for 99 years, can’t afford to live in it I’m blocking it, you know what I mean? It’s simple as that.” As of Feb. 26, the City Council rejected the re-zoning request.
Byrd who was born on Long Island and grew up in the Midwest and the South, and graduated from Livingstone College, a Christian-based HBCU in North Carolina, is especially proud of Mother Zion’s history of activism. Black members of the John Street Methodist Church in lower Manhattan founded the Free African Society in 1794, and covertly had abolitionist meetings under the guise of prayer meetings. “We began as an anti-slavery institution and became a church,” Byrd said. The church “was actually known as the grand depot of the Underground Railroad,” he added, with approximately 700 to 800 escaped, former slaves passing through the church’s network, including Tubman, Truth and Douglass.
Byrd sees parallels between the injustice and dehumanization black people faced centuries ago and the current traumas the black community endures today. One of those is “Stop and Frisk,” the discriminatory policy that allowed police in New York City to detain and search black and Latino people randomly, and was expanded by former mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“To be racially profiled by police because of an edict from the mayor, that’s stuff we were dealing with in New York 200 years ago,” he said. Looking at church artifacts, which also included documents from the 18th and 19th centuries, he continued, “There’s manumission papers right there—why did a person have to carry their freedom papers? Profiling.” Recognizing the similarities of how black people were policed during the era of slavery and now, he said, “Stop and frisk was a new way to determine who was free and who was enslaved.”
Mother Zion’s edifice itself is a symbol of flourishing “black excellence” during the Harlem Renaissance. It was designed by one of the first registered black architects in the country, George W. Foster, Jr. The property, the sixth and final location of the church, was purchased in a scheme developed by Philip A. Payton, Jr., owner of the Afro American Realty, a company that bought Harlem properties from their then-white owners, at the turn of the 20th century, rented them to African Americans and helped transform Harlem into a black neighborhood. Payton, on behalf of Mother Zion, whose church was located in a smaller building a block away on West 136th Street at the time, obtained the site, which sold for about $25,000, by using a white woman to pose as its buyer, since the owners of the original property wouldn’t sell to black people. Afterwards, the woman immediately transferred ownership to the church.
Inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’s philosophy of placing emphasis on intellectual expansiveness, Byrd said church leaders wanted to build a space that could work as an “auditorium—not so much a church—to give our people our own Carnegie Hall.” During an era of nationwide legal segregation, “We didn’t have to go through a side entrance, we didn’t have to be told, ‘you can’t come in because you’re negro.’ This was our own cathedral of dignity for black people who most certainly, desperately needed it.”
The New York Age, a prominent black newspaper at the time, heralded the newly built church’s inaugural Sept. 20, 1925 service with the headline, “Thousands of Worshippers Take Part In Dedication of Mother Zion’s New and Magnificent House of Worship, 137th St.” The article stated The New York Times estimated over 7,000 worshippers were in attendance.
The church’s activism extended to members, like Katherine Nichson, who has worshipped there since she was an infant, and is a living testament to the activist history of Mother Zion. She remembers when trolley cars ran down Seventh Avenue, and recalls gathering other neighborhood kids to attend church on Sundays. A lifelong activist, she often squared off with New York City’s Department of Education throughout the mid- to late-20th century in order to improve the quality of education the children in her community were receiving. She said she fought to have an Intellectually Gifted Children (IGC) program put into P.S. 197 on West 135th Street and Fifth Avenue and succeeded. “I said, ‘There’s no monopoly on brains so you’re gonna put one in here!’”
Nichson also fought against having the 6th grade removed from P.S. 197, summoning then Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton to a meeting at the school with parents. When Sutton told her that he may not be able to stay long, Nichson flew into action.
“So I warned my parents out there: ‘Percy Sutton the Borough President is coming here to help us. I don’t want to see a vacant seat in this building—I don’t care if you get a drunkard, whoever—get ‘em and fill every seat in here!’” Nichson said so many people showed up, “it was standing room only so when Percy Sutton came in, he could hardly get in the door.” Again, according to Nichson, she prevailed, saving the 6th grade.
The nonagenarian’s feistiness endures despite her advanced age. The daughter of a World War I veteran who was a member of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, one of the most decorated units from that war, Nichson described herself as being “born a Harlem Hellfighter,” after the regiment’s moniker. A few years ago, she mesmerized attendees of a Town Hall meeting when she lectured Mayor Bill De Blasio about the lack of services in her neighborhood.
After years of watching the church’s congregation age, Mother Zion has succeeded in attracting some young new members. These include Bria Hardin-Boyer, 24, a Spellman and Columbia graduate who is a feminist, and former Black Lives Matter and NAACP activist, as well as her husband, a Harvard graduate and attorney. Diane Chappelle, 63, the church’s volunteer historian would like to see this continue but acknowledges it won’t be easy. “Like Janet Jackson said, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ We can’t just sit back on our laurels and think about how grand we were and not do anything for today’s generation, so I think that’s the mantle we have to pick up for this Harlem Renaissance.”
It helps that Byrd has won deep respect from his congregation. During services on Feb. 23 , Mrs. Amelia Montgomery, 78, widow of the celebrated late Tuskegee Airman and civil rights activist Dabney Montgomery, gave Byrd the United States Congressional Gold Medal of Honor that her husband received in 2007 for his service. “Here is this medal that God said to me I should give to Reverend Byrd,” said Montgomery, recalling Byrd’s unwavering support before and after her husband’s passing. Thunderous applause followed.
Now, Mother Zion is stepping up to help its community respond to the current coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. In a Facebook video post on March 12, Byrd said the church would help feed children who might miss meals because of school closures. “Mother AME Zion Church will commit itself to feeding the vulnerable youth of Harlem daily,” he said. Recognizing that the church’s doors should always be open, especially to the marginalized, he added, “if we can’t feed them through the week, we shouldn’t be open on Sunday.”