It would not be much of a stretch to say that when one thinks of famous individuals that Rochester is known for, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony quickly come to mind. As Chris and I have been exploring the burned over district in Upstate, NY, we have also encountered many other social and cultural movements, such as the Temperance Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement. Plus, while the abolition of slavery certainly did not happen in Rochester, NY, the city did play a large role in the movement as a major ‘hub on the Underground Railroad’ and was the home of Frederick Douglass’ North Star anti-slavery newspaper. The North Star was originally written, edited and published in the basement of the original African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church on Favor Street in the Corn Hill neighborhood and because of this history, Chris and I started to do our research to pay a visit. As we looked a bit further, we also learned that the AME Zion Church of Rochester is also considered the first Black Church in Rochester, NY, which only increased our curiosity and desire to go.
After doing some poking around and making some phone calls, we learned that while the current AME Zion congregation meets at 549 Clarissa Street, the original building where they used to meet and where Frederick Douglass wrote the North Star, is still standing at 40 Favor Street. We originally attempted to see if we could be given a tour of both churches, but learned that neither the Corn Hill Association nor the current AME Zion Church has any say about what happens at the Favor Street Church; only the current owners of the now re-named Greater Bethlehem Temple could let us in. We decided to ultimately give up on touring the Favor Street location since we got the impression this would take a lot of work to do, and instead decided to simply do a drive by, take some pictures of the original church and then visit the now current AME Zion location and discuss history there. We also agreed that we would attend the service as well.
Chris and I walked in to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and found ourselves in a hallway where directly in front of us was the actual entry to the sanctuary, and behind us was a longer hallway leading to individual rooms used for Sunday school. We were quickly greeted by a gentleman who welcomed us, handed us the program for the morning’s service and instructed us where to enter the sanctuary. As Chris and I walked in, we noticed the wall of stained glass windows that separated the entry hallway from the sanctuary and I pointed out to Chris that these were probably the original stained glass windows from the Favor Street Church that we had heard about. Chris and I chose to sit in the second to last pew from the back, in the very middle. We were quickly welcomed by several more congregation members and Chris and I definitely felt a bit more comfortable due to everyone’s friendliness.
The service eventually got underway and we were reminded that the season of Advent had officially begun. Several passages from the Bible were read and many hymns were sung throughout the 2 ½ hour service and towards the end, the Advent candles were also lit. There was also a point in the middle of the service that the pastor asked if there were any visitors in the audience attending for their first time. While nobody necessarily turned around and looked directly at us, it definitely felt like everyone knew we were the noobies, so Chris and I stood up in front of the near 200 person congregation and introduced ourselves. Once we did this, the pastor then asked “Where are you from?,” which I believe is kind of code for “what are you doing here?” without directly saying this. We then shared that we had scheduled a tour of the place after the service and were interested in the history of the congregation, which the pastor accepted as an answer and then eventually left us alone. I have got to say that a 2 ½ hour service is not always what I would choose to do with my time, however I really did not notice how much time had gone by until around the 2 hour mark. I was deeply entranced (and incredibly entertained) by the singing that was taking place and sheer charisma and exuberance the pastor exhibited to the congregation.
Once the service came to an end, Chris and I hung out in our pew for a few minutes and made small talk with many different members of the congregation who came up to us and thanked us for coming. The woman who had been asked to show us around and answer questions for us eventually approached us and introduced herself as Eunice White. Ms. White took us to the front of the church to get us away from the exiting crowd and introduced us to her friend Robin Knowle (sp?), who is also a local historian and partners with Ms. White in doing historical re-enactments. These two women then gave us an overview of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in general, and the history of the congregation of the AME Zion Church in Rochester, NY.
It hopefully goes without saying that the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church originated from the Methodist Episcopal Church and to spare the reader from a long drawn out explanation of Methodism, the most important thing to know is that Methodism is a movement within Protestant Christianity and started in England by a man named John Wesley who started a revivalist movement within Anglicanism in the 18th century. The Methodist Episcopal Church grew rapidly and split many, many times due to different belief systems among the congregation, only for some of these splits to then re-unite 100 years later. Today there are over 40 different denominations within Methodism, such as the Free Methodist Church, the Wesleyan Church, the Congregational Methodist Church, the First Congregational Methodist Church, the United Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion Church…just to name a few.
While there are a lot of similarities between the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, they are in effect actually different. The AME Zion Church has its origins in New York City when black parishioners at the John Street Methodist Church were being blatantly discriminated against, with several being forced to leave the worship center. Several of these black Methodists left and formed their own churches. The first church to be built by the new African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was built in 1800 and named Zion, which is where they took the name from. These early black churches remained under the Methodist Episcopal Church denomination since they were still being ministered by white Methodist ministers. However, the AME Zion Church became its own entity in 1821, and by 1822 the first bishop of the AME Zion Church was ordained. While technically the AME Zion Church was formed in 1821, it can trace its roots back to 1796 and ever since, has remained a historically African-American Christian denomination.
It was only a short six years after the AME Zion Church was officially formed that the AME Zion Church in Rochester, NY came to be. The original church sat on the corners of Spring and Favor Street, and according the AME Zion Church of Rochester’s web site, “the early church edifice was connected to the Underground Railroad in Rochester. Harriet Tubman, known as “The Moses of her people,” is credited with leading hundreds of Negro slaves to freedom, using the first building to shelter fugitive slaves. Susan B. Anthony gave one of her last public addresses in the church, and Frederick Douglass edited his abolitionist papers, “The North Star,” from presses set up in the church basement.” Since the churches formation in Rochester, NY, two different churches have sat at this location with the current, existing church being built in 1879. It was at this time, with the creation of this newer, second church that specific memorial stained glass windows were made for the church to commemorate Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Roswell Jeffrey and his wife, and other famous parishioners of the church.
As the City of Rochester continued to grow and the civil rights movement of the 1960s got underway, the Corn Hill Neighborhood in Rochester went through some major upheaval and the riots of Rochester took place on the door steps of the AME Zion Church. A few years later, Rochester decided to undergo an “Urban Renewal” program, which ultimately meant that the Inner Loop that we have come to take for granted needed to be built and in order to accommodate this, the Corn Hill neighborhood was severely “cut up” and is now very disjointed (I mean, have you ever thought about why Troup and Fitzhugh Street have two parts to them? Because they were cut in half for the creation of the Inner Loop and existing buildings!). Part of this Urban Renewal program also involved tearing down the AME Zion Church, so the congregation got together and decided to move down the street in 1974 to their existing location at 549 Clarissa Street. Then wouldn’t you know it, but the original church was actually never torn down by the city and instead sat vacant for quite some time. Today the original AME Zion Church, where Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass both have so much history, today is owned by Greater Bethlehem Temple.
Ms. White and her friend explained all of this history to us and also shared that the congregation has attempted several times to buy back their original church, all to no avail. Ms. White also mentioned that the original printing press of Frederick Douglass “could” still be in this building. Over the years, the congregation has moved their original stained glass windows from the Favor Street church to their new building, but in this process, the Frederick Douglass memorial window was broken beyond repair, and one window cannot be found. Ms. White took us to the windows and pointed out specific details about the windows to us, and also explained who Roswell Jeffrey was. Roswell Jeffrey was a very wealthy black male who owned a very large section of land in Rochester, before Rochester was even a city. This area of land was roughly between Alexander and Goodman Streets, and between Monroe and East Avenues. This was no small feat for a black guy back in the day and in fact, the entire area was known as Jeffreyville for a while and it is the area where Frederick Douglass bought his house in the city. Roswell Jeffrey was a large “mover and shaker” in Rochester at this time and helped establish the AME Zion Church in Rochester.
Ms. White and her friend shared many more things with us and we also asked our usual incessant line of questioning, but we eventually said our thank yous and goodbyes. Chris and I left in high spirits and feel like we really made some large strides in understanding just how important the Upstate, NY area is, but not in just exploring the burned over district, but in understanding how Upstate, NY has helped shape the country we live in.