March 18, 2022

Children of the Hush Harbor: Historic Black Churches and the Fight to Save Them

For a group of people taken from their homes, stolen away to a foreign place, seeking community, and looking for a safe space, faith was—and continues to be—a major cornerstone of the Black experience in America. From the hush harbors where enslaved Africans would worship in secret, to Richard Allen, a minister and educator who spread the message of the A.M.E. Church by sewing his writings into the sleeves of coats he tailored, the faith institutions of Black people in America are intricately intertwined with our histories and legacies. They are borne out of a legacy extending back to Africa, while creating new cultural traditions for Black people in the United States.

Interior view of a church with two rows of stained glass windows and dark pews on two levels. The carpet is red.

photo by: Sandy Adams, Outdoorvizions Photography

Interior windows at Asbury United Methodist Church.

In 2022 the Lilly Endowment, Inc and the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund announced a $20 million dollar investment in Black churches and congregations across the country. The intention behind Preserving Black Churches is to reimagine, redesign, and redeploy historic preservation to address the institution’s needs and the cultural assets and stories they steward.

This program builds on the work of the Action Fund which has long supported the preservation of Black sacred spaces. This includes Asbury United Methodist Church, and Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church, two examples of institutions and congregations that are working to preserve their story as sites of worship.

Asbury United Methodist Church (Washington, D.C.)

It is possible, within the hustle and bustle of a city like Washington, D.C. to miss the stately brick church sitting at the corner of 11th and K St NW. However, the preservation work at Asbury United Methodist Church is ensuring that the church will never fade away.

Asbury UMC began as Asbury Chapel, with the congregation forming in 1836 following a split from the Foundry Methodist Episcopal Church—a white congregation that discriminated against its Black parishioners. According to DC Historic Sites (a project of the DC Preservation League), it is the oldest African American congregation still on its original site.

Looking up a belltower with a ladder on the right side of the screen and gorgeous stonework all the way up to the top.

photo by: Sandy Adams, Outdoorvizions Photography

Looking up into the bell tower at Asbury United Methodist Church.

An exterior view of a stone church from a busy city street.

photo by: Sandy Adams, Outdoorvizions Photography

Exterior view of the Asbury United Methodist Church.

The church’s history extends beyond its doors, with the congregation establishing an aid society in 1836 and building the city’s first desegregated apartments in 1947. The congregation was also involved in key historic events, such as the battle to instate Black pastors to full status in Black churches, and the 1848 Pearl Escape, the single largest recorded escape by enslaved people in U.S. history. Asbury UMC also had a hand in the forming of Sibley Hospital in the Palisades neighborhood of Washington D.C., due to a white member of the church donating a home he owned that would eventually house the hospital.

Today, Asbury UMC engages in preservation projects ranging from maintaining archival papers to hosting an oral histories podcast with members of the congregation. The 2021 Action Fund grant will be used to support a variety of exterior restoration needs including restoring the church’s wood windows and Bell Tower masonry.

Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church (Great Barrington, Massachusetts)

While documentation shows that the congregation began gathering in the early 1860s, it wasn’t until 1886 that construction began on the Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church’s sanctuary. Counting W.E.B. Du Bois among its congregants, the church sits as a living testament to the African Americans who made Great Barrington home, as well as a site to uplift the importance of Du Bois’ impact on the U.S. Like many Black churches, the church served as more than just a religious center, becoming a focal point for spiritual, political and community life.

This centralization was a key point for the A.M.E. faith, where congregants not only gathered for religious fellowship, but also organized around issues important to them. Du Bois wrote extensively about this aspect of the church and his faith in The Souls of Black Folk, stating that “...The Negro church of today is the social centre of Negro life in the United States and the most characteristic expression of African character”.

An exterior view of a small white church. There is an expanse of grass in front of it and a set up stairs leading up to the entrance.

photo by: Clinton Church Restoration

Exterior view of Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church.

While the church is not currently an active church, the Clinton Church Restoration (CCR) coalition is working on a restoration of the sanctuary and hopes to turn it into a cultural center and heritage site, with the goal of creating a space that uplifts the Black community in Great Barrington. Formed in late 2016, the CCR purchased the site in 2017, raising $2 million to date to support its restoration work. One of the goals of the restoration is to add context to Du Bois’ life, providing more historic space for people to learn about his life in Great Barrington.

Dr. Kendra T. Field, the project historian for the CCR, says that “While Du Bois’ relationships with white ministers, teachers, and principals are well known, it's far more difficult—and yet all the more necessary—to rescue from relative oblivion the quieter evidence of Du Bois’ immersion in black family and kin networks, black communities, institutional life, and spiritual traditions reflected in the work of the Clinton A.M.E. Zion church society of Du Bois' youth." The interpretive work at the site will work to add more information to the hometown hero’s story, creating other space to publicly memorialize the luminary.

Two people standing outside reading some signage outside a small white historic church.

photo by: Clinton Church Restoration

Historians David Levering Lewis and Kendra T. Field reading interpretive signage in front of the Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church.

A man and a woman standing on the steps leading to a historic church.

photo by: Clinton Church Restoration

Historians David Levering Lewis and Kendra T. Field on the steps of Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church.

While the emphasis on Du Bois’s life is important, equally important to Dr. Field is the focus on the Black community of Great Barrington, with the preservation work uplifting the Black community of the Housatonic region. The Clinton Church Restoration works to build in the stories of the families who grew up and around the church to add more contours to the story of Great Barrington, situating Du Bois as an important community member who not only shaped Great Barrington, but was shaped by Great Barrington.

Field says, "For me this work is about deepening public understanding of the black families, communities, faith traditions, and institutions that shaped Du Bois’ early life." The project is supported by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund as the coalition continues to work to build out its exhibits and other attractions

Churches have always been simply more than worship houses; they have provided safety and protection in the face of danger, empowered parishioners to fight for justice, and connected communities through service. The spirit of resistance by Black people is deeply intertwined with worship spaces, but these spaces are not exempt from threats and challenges.

These churches exemplify the spirit of resistance that runs through Black worship spaces in the United States. The battle to save historic Black churches and their links to Black people’s resistance in the United States is a core part of our history that should not be overlooked. The divinity of creating a connected community that exceeded the challenges thrown at it is evident across Black history, and sacred spaces of reverence are a necessary part of this history.

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Orilonise Yarborough is a 2021 African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Fellow. Orilonise is currently pursuing her master’s degree in public history at North Carolina Central University. Her research interests include oral histories, Black LGBTQ life and political organization, historic preservation of plantations, and Black women’s resistance movements.

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