City Designates First AME Zion as a Historic Site
Thursday, August 2, 2012 • 11:29am
PATERSON, NJ – Some people in Paterson still owned slaves in 1834 when leaders in the city’s black community started a church called Godwin Street African Methodist Episcopal Zion. It was Passaic County’s first church for African-Americans and quickly became a bastion of social activism in Paterson.
AME Zion helped open the city’s first “colored school” in 1855 and was associated with the Huntoon’s Point Station on the Underground Railroad. In the late 1890s, the church relocated to the corner of Ellison and Summer streets and became known as First AME Zion Church
In recognition of that legacy, Paterson officials have designated the church in the heart of the 4th Ward as a municipal historic site, a decision approved at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.
“It adds to the legacy of the congregation as the oldest church formed by African-Americans in the city,’’ said its pastor, the Rev. Douglas Maven. “We already have a long legacy as an agent of social justice and economic empowerment for African-Americans.’’
“I would hope and pray that this will pass,’’ the Rev. Stafford Mille, pastor of St. Philip’s Ministry of the United Methodist Church in the 1st Ward, told the city council Tuesday night during the public comments before the vote. “The most constant places in any community are churches and schools.’’
Jimmy Richardson, the man who nominated First AME Zion for inclusion on the city’s list of historic sites, outlined some of the church’s history for the council members. Among the details he mentioned were Paterson public schools’ first black principal had been a member of the congregation, as was the first African-American bishop to come from Paterson.
Here’s how a memo by Paterson’s Historic Preservation Commission describes the origins of the church:
“The relatively small African-American community of Paterson, in a long-line of firsts and as one of the earliest African-American communities in New Jersey, established its first church in 1834. The AME Zion congregation met until 1845 in the school house adjacent to the Prospect Street Methodist Church. By 1846 the fledgling community had developed its own resources to fund the construction of an independent church home for the sum of found-hundred and twenty-five dollars on property deeded by Trustees William Tanner, John Klein and Cato George on the north side of Godwin Street. This was a significant moment for a community that was often prevented from or unable to purchase property and notable because the property was provided for the new church by African-Americans.”
The historic commission memo also details the church’s role in education in the city:
“Education was often denied to slaves and free African-Americans, creating a disadvantage that disenfranchised many forcing these communities into marginal economic positions dependent on domestic labor and low-skilled work. However, in 1855 a Colored School was opened in Paterson in order to provide education for the city’s African-American population, which by this time has established itself firmly in the River Street neighborhood that included the Godwin Street AME Zion and known informally as the “African Shore.” Miss Eliza M. Halstead was selected as the school’s first principal. Later the school moved to the Goetschuius Schoolhouse on Division Street and then to the Clinton Street Schoolhouse until the African-American community largely concentrated in the African Shore complained of the hardship imposed by the distance of the school. It was until 1872 that African-Americans were allowed to attend the previously white-only schools. It is a significant mark of the importance both that churches held as identifiable cultural institutions for early African-American communities, but also for First AME Zion specifically to be the home and incubator of the first education opportunities provided for the African-American community prior to desegregation. It firmly took the lead as did many African-American churches in providing the educational opportunities that were otherwise denied them.”
The city’s report says a fire destroyed the church in 1921 and the structure that remains standing today was built in 1924.
Unlike a national designation, being named a city historic site does not come with the possibility or grants or other funding for restoration or repair, according to Gianfranco Archimede, executive director of the historic commission. The main benefit of the historic designation, he said, is the pride it creates over the site’s cultural significance.
Locations placed on Paterson’s historic list also are subject to special review guidelines whenever any building permits are requested for them, he said.