Underground Railroad Church Once Located in Greenwich Village Led Abolitionist Cause
The Shiloh Presbyterian Church is one of many African American churches once found in Greenwich Village, when nearly all the city’s leading African American churches were located in this neighborhood. Like most of those churches, it played a leading role in the abolitionist movement, and its present-day descendant church can be found in Harlem. But some aspects of the Shiloh Presbyterian Church’s history make it stand out, even among its illustrious peers.
Shiloh had many homes in various locations throughout lower Manhattan in the 19th century. From its earliest days it was part of the Underground Railroad, and was led by a series of radical black leaders who consistently found new ways to fight the system of slavery and support the city’s black communities. During the Draft Riots of 1863, the church’s fourth minister, the avid abolitionist, educator, orator, and Greenwich Village resident Henry Highland Garnet provided aid to those affected by the riots, and publicly discussed the influences and effects of the deadly and damaging events.
The Shiloh Presbyterian Church was founded on Rose Street in lower Manhattan in 1822 as the First Colored Presbyterian Church by Samuel Cornish, who also founded the country’s first black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal. In 1824, the church built a sanctuary at 119 Elm Street (today’s Lafayette Street, near Canal Street), but because of debt incurred, the congregation had to sell the property shortly thereafter. Seven years later, in 1831, Shiloh moved to Frankfurt Street, in the “old Swamp church,” where it stayed for the next two decades. During this time, from the 1830s to 1847, Theodore Wright, a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, served as the church’s minister. J.W.C. Pennington followed Wright as minister after his death, and by 1851, the church had moved to 61 Prince Street near present-day Lafayette Street. From 1859 to 1863, and again from 1873 to 1882, Henry Highland Garnet served as the church’s leader.
Henry Highland Garnet was born into slavery in Maryland in 1815, but when he was about nine years old his family was granted permission to attend a funeral and used the opportunity to escape to Delaware, and then to New York City. Garnet, who attended the African Free School and the Phoenix High School of Colored Youth, began his career in abolitionism at an early age. While living with his family in Troy, New York, he worked as the pastor of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church for six years, publishing papers on religion, abolitionism, and the temperance movement. Afterward, he moved to New York, joining the American Anti-Slavery Society and speaking at abolitionist conferences. Garnet believed that negotiating abolition would have limited success, and in his 1843 “Address to the Slaves” Garnet urged slaves to rise up against their masters. By 1849, he assisted black individuals seeking to move to Mexico, Liberia, and the West Indies. He also endorsed black nationalism in the United States.
Under Henry Highland Garnet’s leadership, the Shiloh church was at the center of the anti-slavery fight, leading boycotts of sugar, cotton, and rice, which were all products of slave labor. Garnet collaborated with local newspapers to spread the abolitionist cause, and when John Brown was hung for inciting an armed slave uprising in Virginia on December 2, 1859, Garnet organized a memorial service at the Shiloh Church. Then, when the 1863 Draft Riots erupted, endangering the lives of the city’s African American residents, Garnet and Shiloh stepped in to help those who were impacted.
In the throes of the Civil War, the Union Army faced dwindling numbers of soldiers resulting from desertions and deaths from battle and disease. To build the army’s numbers back up, the federal Conscription Act, the nation’s first draft, was passed in March 1863. It required men between twenty and thirty-five, as well as unmarried men up to forty-five, to submit to a lottery for military duty. However, the draft did not include black men, who were not considered citizens. Furthermore, men with financial means could pay three hundred dollars to be released from service. Amidst inflation caused by the war, prolific unemployment, and food shortages, the draft put the most pressure on working-class white men and their families, who, following the circulation of rumors in the press and the city at large, came to resent the draft, and fear that their jobs would be taken by the city’s black men.
On the day the draft selection began on Saturday, July 11th, 1863, hundreds of white working-class men looted the Provost Marshall’s office at Third Avenue and 46th Street. Over the next four days, they continued to mob the city’s buildings, especially homes and businesses belonging or sympathetic to African Americans. The Colored Orphan Asylum at Fifth Avenue was burned to the ground, and black individuals were attacked and lynched. Though Secretary of War Edwin Stanton sent ten regiments to stop the violence, estimates at the time suggested that up to a thousand people died, five million dollars’ worth of property was damaged or destroyed, and one-fourth of the city’s black population was left without a home. Rioters targetted the outspoken abolitionist Garnet specifically, gathering on his street and calling him by name. Fortunately, neighbors were able to hide and protect the minister.
In an effort to confront the violent and racist events, a number of the city’s civic leaders founded the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People Suffering from the Late Riots, which had offices at 350 Fourth Street. The committee appointed and coordinated a group of African American missionaries, including Garnet, to visit the homes of those seeking aid and evaluate the veracity of their requests. As of July of that year, the clergymen completed three thousand visits and provided assistance to one thousand individuals.
In the New York Daily Tribune‘s July 21st edition, Garnet thanked the press, police officers, and other individuals who offered protection and assistance during and after the Draft Riots. He also, however, indicated that the press played a role in inciting the rioters, and stated, on behalf of the black community, “we wish our persecutors no harm.” Upon the closing of the Committee of Merchants announced on August 22, 1863, Garnet and the other missionaries involved delivered another address, titled “Acknowledgement from the Colored People,” expressing gratitude to the Committee for its support during this period. The Committee had raised forty thousand dollars and assisted twelve thousand people. But still, the impact of the Draft Riots was deeply felt, and the black population of New York City fell dramatically in its aftermath.
In the final weeks of the Civil War, on February 12th, 1865, Garnet became the first African American to address the U.S. House of Representatives, at the invitation of President Lincoln on the president’s birthday. He delivered a sermon that honored the successes of the Union Army and the effort to abolish slavery.
Garnet worked as Shiloh’s minister once again from 1873 to 1882, and from 1875 to 1879, the church was located at 140 Sixth Avenue (today’s 450 Sixth Avenue) in the Greenwich Village Historic District. Over the course of his life, Garnet himself lived in a number of addresses throughout the Village. According to New York City directories, he resided at 183 Bleecker Street from 1868 to at least 1869. Then, from 1870 to 1873, he resided at 185 Bleecker Street, where the Freedmen’s Bank was also located. Garnet later moved to 102 West 3rd Street (then known as Amity Street) from 1873 to 1879. Finally, he moved to 175 MacDougal Street, in the Greenwich Village Historic District, where he remained from 1879 until shortly before his death in 1882.
Garnet’s wife, Sarah Smith Garnet, was also a champion of abolitionism and women’s suffrage. Born on July 31st, 1831, she was the first female African American principal in the New York City school system, and in the late 1880s, she founded the Equal Suffrage League, the first suffrage organization begun by and dedicated to the suffrage of black women. She also participated in developing the Woman’s Loyal League of New York and Brooklyn in 1892 and was elected superintendent of the suffrage department of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, which joined forces with the National Council of Women in 1905. She died on September 17th, 1911.
After residing on Sixth Avenue for four years, Shiloh moved again to 167 West 26th Street, where it stayed from 1879 to 1888. During this time Garnet moved to Washington D.C., working as a preacher at the 15th Street Presbyterian Church. In 1881, he was appointed the U.S. Minister to the black African nation of Liberia, founded by freed American slaves, but he died two months after arriving. Shiloh eventually transitioned to Five Points, and then to Midtown. Today, the church lives on as the St. James Presbyterian Church at 409 West 141st Street, founded in 1895.
For more information on Henry Highland Garnet, Sarah Smith Garnet, the Shiloh Presbyterian Church, and other sites associated with the Village’s African American history and social change movements, please see our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map, Greenwich Village Historic District 1969-2019: Photos and Tours, and the African American History tour in East Village Building Blocks.