AME Zion Church, Site Only
(West side of South Crouse between Washington and Water Streets)
Syracuse, New York
The AME Zion Church in Syracuse was the largest African American congregation (and for many years the only one) in Syracuse. It was the single most important community organization for African Americans before the Civil War, and it was one of the most important sources of abolitionist and underground railroad activity in the region. It also represents the central importance of churches for promoting the Freedom Trail. While many churches were opposed to abolitionism, others such as the Wesleyan Methodist Church (corner of Onondaga and Jefferson), the Congregational Church (East Genesee Street, just west of the Courier Building, which formed the core of Plymouth Congregational which it built its new building on Madison Street), Church of the Messiah (Unitarian, corner of Burnet and State), and the Baptist Church were main supporters of abolitionism.
Syracuse’s AME Zion Church was organized in 1835 by Rev. Thomas James, himself a freedom seeker as well as an AME Zion missionary. At first, the congregation of about fifteen people met in homes. On March 2, 1837, the church purchased the former Methodist Church at 58 Salina Street (on Block 77, lot 225, according to note in hand of Richard Wright, OHA files) where the salt office was later located, for $100. The first trustees were Richard Wandal, Frederick Jackson, Prince Jackson, Francis Jackson, and Ambrose Dunbar. (Clayton, 186)
In 1837, Charles B. Remond, agent for the Colored American, visited Syracuse and noted that:
Syracuse is a very pleasant little place, so far as buildings are concerned. Their dwellings are built with a great deal of economy and beauty; not large, but commodious, not for show, but for comfort; a person cannot but admire the taste of the people in the plan of their houses.
The colored people here, and in Salina, (a place one mile distant) number about one hundred; they are reforming and improving; they have recently purchased a very commodious house of worship, and paid for it; the house formerly occupied by the white Methodists of this place. They are about to establish a School, for the education of their children, and in this if they seek it, they will undoubtedly receive encouragement from the whites. (Syracuse, September 20, 1837, Colored American)
In 1841, Jermain Loguen arrived in Syracuse and found “the colored people comparatively uncared for.” He was ordained to preach, and he also organized a school. He noted that “the colored people had a small house for worship enclosed, but not finished.” Loguen hired a lot from “Mr. Hoyt, near the Park, and opened a school for the children, and taught them to read and write.” Loguen noted in his autobiography that
he then hired a room of Mr. Dunbar [probably Ambrose Dunbar, an African American], in Salina street, but because it was too small, he set about building a new house near the old Baptist church, in Church street. Having enclosed the building, the people were so enraged at the project, that he moved it with oxen near McKinstry’s Candle Factory, and kept a school in it the following winter, and had an exhibition as before. The house was again removed, and now stands on the tannery premises formerly of Bates & Williams, now the property of W.H. Van Buren. (373)
Loguen left Syracuse about 1843 or 1844 to raise money to finish this building, but he ended up as an AME Zion minister in Bath for three years and Ithaca for two years. He also began his career as an abolitionist lecturer before he returned to Syracuse in 1848.
Meanwhile, the Syracuse A.M.E. Zion church officially organized on July 4, 1842. Trustees were John Lyles (Lisle, who later became a minister himself, both of this congregation and of an African American Congregational Church in Syracuse), Prince Jackson, Williams Jenkin, John Decato, Nathan Nelson, Peter Hornbeck, and Joseph Bristol. (150th anniversary) Other trustees in following years included Francis Key, Richard Wendell [Wandell], Charles Myres, John C. Foster, Isaac Wales, Frederick Jackson, Samuel Ray, Ebenezer Lee, William Gray, William Brisco, and Harry Clark. Several of these, including John Lyle, Peter Hornbeck, and probably Prince Jackson, became well-documented underground railroad activists. (Two Prince Jacksons lived in Syracuse in 1850. One of these was indicted in the rescue of William “Jerry” Henry.) Isaac Wales was the son of the first man to live in slavery in Syracuse. William Gray and William Brisco were quite likely freedom seekers themselves.
At least three of the early ministers of this church were clearly involved with the underground railroad. Rev. Thomas James, the founder and pastor from 1841-44, was a freedom seeker himself. Rev. John Lyles (Laisle) assisted the Harris family when they were pursued in 1850. Rev. Jermain Loguen (1851-55, 1859-62, 1864-66) was a freedom seeker from Tennessee and used his home as one of Syracuse’s most important safe houses. Loguen was an AME Zion bishop from 1868 until his death in 1872.
In 1848, the AME Zion congregation purchased a lot, perhaps on Washington Street, from Charles Briggs, perhaps along with an existing building. They may also have moved their earlier church to this site. It appears that they also built a new building in front of the older one. With the help of a fair organized by the ladies of the church in 1849, they paid off one mortgage for “the lot and building erected thereon” on Washington Street in 1851, (Religious Recorder, August 29, 1849; July 10, 1851).
In any case, by 1856, they had lost their original building. The Journal noted that “the Colored Church in this city are making vigorous efforts to erect a new Church. The loss of their old Church is seriously felt by this society.” (March 12, 1856) They took out another mortgage and built a new church, dedicated in June 1856. (Standard, June 17, 1856) In 1857, the women of the church organized a festival to avert a threatened Sheriff’s sale, the proceeds “to be applied towards the payment of the debt owing by the Society for the building of their house of worship.” (Journal, December 1, 1857; Standard, December 24, 1857)
Splits within the congregation perhaps led to changing sites for the building. The 1851 city directory listed a “Second Congregation Church (colored),” whose minister was Rev. John Lisle, formerly of the A.M.E. Zion congregation. Several meetings in the early 1850s were held at the “Fayette Street Church.” In the late 1850s, news articles referred to “Mr Loguen’s Church,” perhaps the regular A.M.E. Zion Church.
In 1869, the congregation decided that it needed a larger building, “the old edifice having the marks of time and decay upon it.” It was to be an “unpretentious structure of brick, capable of seating nearly five hundred people.” The corner stone was laid in September on October, 1869. Lyman Reynolds did the masonry, and John Salpaugh and Benjamin J. Swartz did the carpentry work. (Standard, July 9, 1871) Wherever the earlier buildings were located, this building was certainly on Block 38, on the west side of South Crouse between Washington and Water Streets. (Insurance maps)
The building cost about $6100. The congregation raised $2600, received a mortgage from Onondaga County Savings Bank for $2000, and still owed $1500. To help raise the money, church women organized a fair. Sometime in 1870, the Standard published the following advertisement:
The new church of the Zion M.E. Society, on Chestnut street, approaches completion. The Society has made great sacrifices to enable them to erect a suitable house of worship which shall accommodate their growing necessities. They have reached the point where but a comparative trifle is needed to complete the work. The sittings, desk and other furniture of the church remain to be provided for. About eight hundred dollars is yet required. To raise this sum, the ladies of the church have put their wits at work, and have inaugurated a fair which is now in successful progress, and will be continued through the week. Lunch is served every afternoon at one o’clock. Let the liberal friends of the church sxee to it that the enterprise of the colored ladies does not fail of its object. (Standard, ? 21, 1870)
Rev. Loguen persuaded the Park Street Presbyterian Church to donate the pews and cushions taken from that church in the spring of 1869. (Journal, August 17, 1869) In spite of these efforts, the church was advertised at a sheriff’s sale in 1871. (Journal, January 10, 1871).
With difficulty, the congregation managed to raise enough money to retain ownership of the building. “The edifice has twice barely escaped sale on an execution,” noted the Journal,
but each time a disaster has been averted by timely assistance from sympathising members of other societies. . . .There has been much litigation, much of it arising from a deliberate attempt to take advantage of the inexperience of the Building Committee. The Society has struggled manfully, however, with the embarrassments that have been thrown in its way, such as would have discouraged a people not inured to trials and tribulations.” (July 9, 1871)
In July 1871, the Journal published an appeal to the whole community for help:
For the last five years “Zion’s Methodist Episcopal Church,” (colored) of this city, has been exerting itself to its utmost capacity to build a respectable church edifice. It has finally succeeded, but now finds itself indebted to the amount of some three thousand dollars, that must be paid immediately or the building will be sold, and the Society, after expending so much money and labor, left houseless. An appeal has been made to the Christian people and Christian churches for assistance, but the response to the appeal has not been sufficient to cancel the debt.
It would seem to an outside observer that in a city where there is so many wealthy Christian churches, that this small sum would be raised at onace, and this poor church, that has been struggling so long, at once relieved from this burden. But as it is not raised, I make this appeal to those outside of the Christian Church to the friends of humanity. Let every such person at once forward to Rev. J.W. Loguen the sum of one dollar or more, and in one week the debt can be removed. Mr. Loguen will acknowledge the receipt of all such contributions, through the city press. This call is not confined to the city, but is extended to the friends of humanity throughout the country.
We may or may not agree with the religious opinions of this people, but they are citizens and brothers, and should be assisted in this endeavor to erect and pay for a respectable place of worship. Friends, send in your contributions at once. A Citizen. (Journal, July 12, 1871)
By the time this letter appeared, however, African Americans had raised almost all of this money themselves. They did it at the dedication of the church. Although the church was not quite finished, the congregation held a dedication ceremony in July 1871. Names of people who gave financial pledges read like a who’s who list of African Americans—both men and women—as well as a few sympathetic European Americans in Syracuse. (Standard, July 9, 1871)
Although the congregation raised $2450 dollars that day, but they still owed about $1000 on their existing debt, and they needed more money to finish the building. When a note came due in the spring of 1872, the Ministerial Association of Syracuse took up the matter, asking members of the “benevolent public” to help raise the money. “All are doubtless aware,” they noted,
That the members of this church and society are poor. The most of them are employed as porters and servants, getting small salaries. From their small earnings they contribute liberally, as they are exceedingly anxious to pay off the debt on the church. If their friends will assist them in paying the note of $700, they will take care of the mortgage of $2000. (Journal, March 4, 1872)
According to Rev. Arthur Marshall, the former church building remained standing at the rear and was used as “the planning place for a great deal of Underground Railroad activities.” On the 1882-90 insurance map, a building standing behind the church was labeled a school. In 1908, a building in the same spot was called a chapel.
In 1911, the congregation moved into a new church building at 711 E. Fayette Street, designed by Charles E. Colton.
Various sources give various stories about what happened to the old building. One source suggested that it was sold to Earl C. Fralock for $3000, to be used as a cleaning business. Other sources indicated that it became a movie house for a year and then a storehouse for a brewery. It was torn down in 1928 for a six-story parking garage. By 1941, the site held a bottling plant. (150th; Herald-American?, August 4, 1928; Insurance map, 1910-41)
AME Zion Church, vertical file notes, OHA, including unidentified copies of what appear to be
records of trustees elected at annual meetings.
Bruce, Dwight H., ed. Memorial History of Syracuse, N.Y. Syracuse: H.P. Smith & Co., 1891.
150th Year Celebration (Sesquicentennial) People’s A.M.E. Zion Church, 1841-1991. Souvenir Program.
Dedication of the African M.E. Church of Syracuse, July 9, 1871.
Loguen, Jerman W. The Rev. J.W. Loguen as a Slave and as a Free Man. Repr. New York: Negro Universities Press.
Religious Recorder, December 10, 1846; August 29, 1849; July 10, 1851.
Standard, December 24, 1857.
Journal, July 9, 1871.
It is still unclear exactly where the first A.M.E. Zion Church stood and where it was later moved. It is also not clear what happened to the 1848 church, why the congregation needed to build a new structure in 1856, and where either the 1848 or the 1856 building were located. Deeds and mortgages would be very helpful in sorting out the physical changes of these sites and buildings. Church records would also help identify members, but these apparently do not exist, except for minutes that record names of ministers and trustees.