By Mary M. Donohue and Whitney Bayers for Connecticut Explored
Black churches have long been at the forefront in the battle for social progress and equality. Since the end of the 18th century, African Americans worked to organize Christian congregations that would afford them full membership, often splitting away from white congregations. In addition to serving the spiritual needs of their members, African American churches served as social and political platforms, boldly condemning slavery, organizing abolitionist societies, serving as stations on the Underground Railroad, starting schools for black children, and hosting nationally known speakers such as Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. As African American churches emerged in urban areas, they became social centers for the surrounding neighborhoods—safe places to worship, discuss issues, and hold meetings. Issues of great importance to these congregations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries included suffrage, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, and access to fair housing and education.
Two of Connecticut’s earliest black churches were Talcott Street (now Faith) Congregational Church in Hartford and Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church in New Haven. In a long and complex history, Faith Congregational Church traces its roots back to 1819, when Hartford’s African Americans rejected seating in the galleries of white churches and began to worship in a meeting room of the First Church of Christ. Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church was founded in 1820 as the African Ecclesiastical Society by Simeon Jocelyn, a white abolitionist, and 24 former slaves.
The AME and AMEZ Church Movement
Among black congregations in Connecticut, two particular denominations stand out. In a time when the Underground Railroad was heavily traveled, congregations of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) churches had conductors standing by to send freedom-seeking passengers on toward liberty.
The AME denomination stemmed from St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia. Amidst rising tension between black and white members and the segregation of black worshippers into an upper balcony, member and former slave Richard Allen and others gathered fellow congregants and left St. George’s to form a new church in 1794. In 1816, the African Methodist Episcopal church officially departed from the Methodist church and became the first independent black denomination in the nation.
In a separate movement in 1796 in New York City, African American parishioners left the congregation of the John Street Methodist Church and organized a separate African chapel, which they named Zion. Black Methodists were rarely allowed to preach and were restricted from becoming members of the Methodist Conference. After two decades of continued affiliation with the Methodist Church, the group voted to make a separation to become the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1848, Zion was added to the name in order to distinguish their denomination from the Philadelphia group and to honor their mother church.
African American Denominations Work for Social Justice
The earliest of this denomination in Connecticut is the Varick Memorial AME Zion church in New Haven. Named for James Varick, the first black ordained bishop of the AME Zion church, Varick Memorial Church was organized in 1818 when more than 30 African Americans left the Methodist Church to form their own congregation. In 1820, it officially became affiliated with the AME Zion church movement of James Varick. By 1841, the church had a building on Broad Street, but it relocated in 1872 to Foote Street. In 1908, the present building was constructed, and it was here that Booker T. Washington made his last public speech before his death in 1915.
The Cross Street AME Zion Church of Middletown originated in 1823, and a building was erected in 1830, under the leadership of Reverend Jehiel Beman. Beman, the son of a Revolutionary War soldier and the father of Amos Beman, led the congregation in the antislavery cause. Women of the church, under the leadership of Clarissa Beman, created one of the first women’s abolitionist societies, known as the Colored Female Anti-Slavery Society of Middletown. Its goal was not only to end slavery but also to improve the condition of free African Americans. The church continued to be a community leader during the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. The congregation participated in protest marches and was witness to numerous visits and speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1965, to help black students go to college, the church’s Reverend William Davage founded the Greater Middletown Negro Youth Scholarship Fund. The church was rebuilt in 1867, moved about a quarter mile in 1929, and demolished in 1978. A new church building was constructed in 1978 and later sold to Wesleyan University. A building at 440 West Street now houses the congregation.
Metropolitan AME Zion Church is directly descended from the first African American church in Hartford. When the African Religious Society separated into two churches in early 1830s, one became the Talcott Street (now Faith) Congregational and the other the Colored Methodist Episcopal (now Metropolitan). The first pastor of the Methodist church was Hosea Easton, an early African American protest writer, who raised funds to replace the church building when it burned in 1836. The new structure, on Elm Street, also provided a school for African American children. By 1856, the church was located on Pearl Street and associated with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion movement of New York. In 1924, the church building was sold to the City of Hartford. The congregation relocated to Main Street in 1926 and was later incorporated as the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
Over the years, AME and AMEZ churches have been bastions of community activism. With community centers at home and missions in countries around the world, these denominations continue to strive for equality and share their message of acceptance and faith.
Much of the original research for this article was conducted by Dr. Katherine Harris for the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism (CCT). Mary M. Donohue, formerly senior architectural historian for the CCT, is the executive director of the Manchester Historical Society. Whitney Bayers is the historic preservation fellow for the CCT.
© Connecticut Explored. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in Connecticut Explored (formerly Hog River Journal) Vol. 9/ No. 3, SUMMER 2011.