Tuesday, February 5, 2008

St Augustine's Episcopal Church

A church with a great piece of black history. From the nytimes of 2/26/06

Rediscovering a Relic of a Past Long Obscured By KATHARINE GREIDER
FOR the longest time, no one disturbed the two boxlike enclosures at the rear of the balcony in St. Augustine's Episcopal Church.
No one went up there in the 1950's, when on Sundays Diane (later Afiya) Dawson walked with her mother to the church, an old stone building on Henry Street on the Lower East Side. Or the 60's, when a nun drew Rodger Taylor, a student at nearby Public School 110, into the life of the church. Or in the 70's, when Valerie Preston, as a newlywed, found her way to the vibrant black congregation where she and her husband would take two babies to be baptized.
But by the late 90's, gentrification on the Lower East Side was renewing an old story, the one of African-Americans being, if not pushed out of the neighborhood, somehow made invisible. The Rev. Errol A. Harvey encouraged parishioners to make a connection with the cramped rooms in the upstairs of his church: It was time to climb the impossibly narrow, winding stair that led to the place where their 19th-century black forebears had been confined, literally hidden from the view of white parishioners who filled the main pews. It was time to confront that place, and reveal it to the world.
Before and for a time after 1827, the year slavery was abolished in New York State, white churches typically assigned black people to rear pews or upper galleries like those at St. Augustine's. Continuing an oral tradition that reaches back almost a century, St. Augustine's members call its haunting spaces slave galleries.
In 1999, St. Augustine's formed a committee to study the galleries, a group led by the deacon, the Rev. Edgar W. Hopper, and including Ms. Dawson, Mr. Taylor and Ms. Preston. For three years, this committee collaborated with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which provided fund-raising help and historical research, and emerged with a plan to restore the space and open it for tours. The project has already cost about $270,000; an additional $400,000 is needed to complete restoration.
As part of the rediscovery of this place, some longtime parishioners entered the tiny chambers for the first time. "I felt, I remember very sharply, that it was a sacred space," said Ms. Preston, a school social worker. "I could feel a presence of the ancestors, like there were hundreds of people in the room." It was a sense, she said, of "hearing music, hearing voices."
"I mean, it was overwhelming."
Galleries like this are rare. There is one other known example in Lower Manhattan, in the First Chinese Presbyterian Church, which predates St. Augustine's.
Were the occupants of these rough benches taken to church as servants, soothing and shushing their white infant charges, perhaps, in that stifling perch? Or were they free people who went to talk with God on their own account? Possibly both.
The year a group of prosperous white businessmen founded what was then All Saints' Episcopal Church — 1824 — and the year its present building opened — 1828 — straddle a day of profound significance across New York State: July 4, 1827, Emancipation Day.
Given the fact that St. Augustine's opened after slavery ended in New York, some historians have objected to the term "slave galleries." But Mr. Hopper and his committee say the phrase reveals a deep truth about the space and the mind-set of those who built it. They point to the only two founding vestrymen located in the 1820 census, both slaveholders at a time when fewer than 2,000 New Yorkers were enslaved. Even after emancipation, legally enslaved people could be found in New York, traveling with Southern masters or hiding from them in the city's busy African-American communities.
It is also possible some early occupants of the galleries were still indentured, or continued to be perceived as slaves even though they were free, suggests Leslie M. Harris, author of "In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York, 1626-1863."' Writing home in 1831 from Pennsylvania, where blacks had been free for decades, de Tocqueville's traveling companion Gustave de Beaumont observed that "laws don't change customs."
And yet emancipation would have been vitally important to the African-Americans who climbed up to these seats, a truth that also seems to sing from the historical record of this venerated church. All Saints' earliest sacramental lists revealed the names of several apparently free black parishioners, including Henry Nichols, who in 1830 was head of a household of 10 free black people. He made saddles for a living and lived at 11 Lewis Street, a few blocks from the church.
WITH his wife, Phoebe, and three of their children, he went to All Saints' on July 5, 1829, to be baptized. This, Mr. Hopper recognized, was a day black New Yorkers took to the streets in celebration of the second anniversary of emancipation.
There was something else unusual about the incident: "Episcopalians are brought to be baptized in swaddling clothes; it's not something we do late in life," Mr. Hopper said. "This was a conversion, you understand?" It may be that the Nicholses were making a connection between baptism and the "conversion" from slavery to freedom, for their community and perhaps members of their own household. For centuries, slaveholders and enslaved people had been in tension over the rite of baptism, both perceiving it as a door to freedom. To reassure slaveholders, colonial legislatures, including New York's, had passed laws establishing that a slave baptized as a Christian could still be held in bondage.
At All Saints', the era of both the Nicholses and the patrician founders didn't last. Blacks increasingly left segregated white churches for their own houses of worship. The Lower East Side filled with poor European immigrants, and All Saints' with Irish tenement dwellers. In 1924, an ebbing All Saints' (by the 1940's it would merge with St. Augustine's and begin its transition to black stewardship) celebrated its hundredth anniversary with a drama that included these lines:
Slave: O Massa, am I gwine to be forgot? Alone for me is there no room in Heav'n?
All Saints': Come in dear Negro Slave, you too may come; for you I build two special galleries, where you, locked in, may join in all the hymns and shout Amen! to what your Masters pray.
Later in the drama, New York's governor enters, and, with a tap of his sword, emancipates the kneeling slave, who exclaims, "Glory, glory, hallelujah, freedom!"
In the 1920's, classifieds in The New York Times advertised All Saints' as "the slave-gallery church," complete with "Lincoln Museum," as if, from this safe cultural and historical distance, the space could now be seen as an attraction or curiosity.
The uncovering of St. Augustine's past is a work in progress. But to leave its graciously proportioned sanctuary for one of those galleries is a visceral experience that by itself conveys a great deal. "The power of this," says Mr. Taylor, a co-author of the book "Einstein on Race and Racism," "is that you can share it with people. People can come in and get an experience. Otherwise, it's just two rooms."


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