Faith in Their Own Color: Black Episcopalians in Antebellum New York City

Faith in Their Own Color: Black Episcopalians in Antebellum New York City

Faith in Their Own Color: Black Episcopalians in Antebellum New York City

Faith in Their Own Color: Black Episcopalians in Antebellum New York City

Synopsis

On a September afternoon in 1853, three African American men from St. Philip's Church walked into the Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and took their seats among five hundred wealthy and powerful white church leaders. Ultimately, and with great reluctance, the Convention had acceded to the men's request: official recognition for St. Philip's, the first African American Episcopal church in New York City. In Faith in Their Own Color, Craig D. Townsend tells the remarkable story of St. Philip's and its struggle to create an autonomous and independent church. His work unearths a forgotten chapter in the history of New York City and African Americans and sheds new light on the ways religious faith can both reinforce and overcome racial boundaries.

Founded in 1809, St. Philip's had endured a fire; a riot by anti-abolitionists that nearly destroyed the church; and more than forty years of discrimination by the Episcopalian hierarchy. In contrast to the majority of African Americans, who were flocking to evangelical denominations, the congregation of St. Philip's sought to define itself within an overwhelmingly white hierarchical structure. Their efforts reflected the tension between their desire for self-determination, on the one hand, and acceptance by a white denomination, on the other.

The history of St. Philip's Church also illustrates the racism and extraordinary difficulties African Americans confronted in antebellum New York City, where full abolition did not occur until 1827. Townsend describes the constant and complex negotiation of the divide between black and white New Yorkers. He also recounts the fascinating stories of historically overlooked individuals who built and fought for St. Philip's, including Rev. Peter Williams, the second African American ordained in the Episcopal Church; Dr. James McCune Smith, the first African American to earn an M.D.; pickling magnate Henry Scott; the combative priest Alexander Crummell; and John Jay II, the grandson of the first chief justice of the Supreme Court and an ardent abolitionist, who helped secure acceptance of St. Philip's.

Excerpt

By 1853, slavery in America was legally confined to the Southern states, and Northerners often basked in a sense of righteousness that they were free of the “peculiar institution.” Yet slavery had only been abolished in the state of New York twenty-six years earlier, and few African Americans living in New York City felt Northern governments had much right to feel proud. the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law three years earlier had effectively removed any rights to security free blacks had gained in the North, and prejudice in both gross and petty forms was the societal norm. African Americans were only permitted on the public horse-drawn trolleys and omnibuses at the whim of the driver or conductor. They were excluded from restaurants, theaters (unless the balcony was designated as separate seating for “colored persons”), and cultural and professional institutions. They attended segregated schools and had largely established their own churches, rather than attend the separate services to which white congregations had relegated them. Their right to vote was encumbered by residency and property requirements significantly different from and more difficult to meet than those in effect for whites. and despite the existence of their own fancy balls, elegant restaurants, cultural institutions, and a growing bourgeois class, African Americans were still assumed to be uniformly lazy, poor, uneducated, bereft of all virtues, and unworthy of mingling with white citizens in any setting.

Yet on a Thursday afternoon in September of that year, three black men walked into St. John’s Chapel in Manhattan, an Episcopal parish that operated under the auspices of the August Trinity Church on Wall Street, and took their seats among some five hundred wealthy and powerful white men. It was the second day of the Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, an annual gathering to conduct diocesan administrative and canonical business. the convention was attended by the clergy and appointed lay representatives of each parish in the eastern half of the state. These three men were the del-

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