Created By: The History Center in Tompkins County
The Zion Church traces its roots to 1796, when James Varick and seven fellow members withdrew from New York City’s John Street Methodist Church in protest over discriminatory treatment they received there. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was chartered in 1801, and by 1843 there were nineteen churches in New York State. According to the research prepared by Historic Ithaca for the National Register nomination, “The Zion church was the only national black church to officially declare against slavery, incorporating the measure in the first Book of Discipline in 1820. Zion ministers were expected to take an active part in the struggle for freedom.”
The local A.M.E. Zion church congregation was chartered on December 16, 1833. A building lot was purchased on Wheat Street (now Cleveland Avenue) in 1836 for five dollars from Richard DeWitt, son of Simeon DeWitt. Construction on the single room, stone meeting house began in the same year and, as the congregation grew, the building was expanded upward and outward, making St. James the oldest continuously used church in the City of Ithaca.
Many notable individuals, some of the most outspoken advocates for the abolition of slavery, attended and spoke at the Zion Church in Ithaca; they included Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Reverend Jermain W. Loguen. Reverend Loguen, the pastor of St. James from 1852 to 1879, ascended to the level of bishop within the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
St. James A.M.E. Church is said to have been a station on the Underground Railroad, although there is little written record about individuals involved or the locations of the stations since harboring runaways was illegal and “stationmasters” were at great risk after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. An association with Harriet Tubman and Ithaca’s proximity to Auburn suggests that the church and its congregation, many of them former slaves, were actively ensuring safe passage for those seeking freedom. A monument to the members of Ithaca’s early black community who enlisted at St. James for Civil War service in New York’s 26th Regiment US Colored Infantry has been placed in a small park adjacent to the church’s east side.
After the Civil War, as Ithaca’s black community grew, it was necessary to provide a larger sanctuary in the church. A clapboard-sided, two-story, gable roofed auditorium was added atop the stone “meeting house” between 1861 and 1872. A vestibule was added to the southeast corner in 1895, and the two-story belfry tower was completed in 1904. A 1910 renovation added the trapezoidal-shaped addition on the north façade, creating a kitchen on the ground floor and increasing the chancel and choir loft area in the sanctuary. The sanctuary annex, separated by tall glazed folding doors, was added in 1913. In 1945 the two large windows on the south wall of the sanctuary were moved to the east wall and replaced by a single, circular stained glass window in honor of the parish’s World War II servicemen.
In 1906, seven Cornell University students, disgruntled by the discrimination they encountered in the fraternities, met at 421 N. Albany St. and founded the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African-Americans, Alpha Phi Alpha. St. James was instrumental in the establishment of the fraternity, providing a place to meet while offering moral support and guidance to early members.
In recognition of its significance as a physical and spiritual representation of cultural and religious history in Ithaca and to the black community it continues to serve, the St. James A.M.E. Church was listed as a city historic landmark in 1975 and, one year later, was listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
This point of interest is part of the tour: Religious Buildings in Downtown Ithaca