Beyond the Village and Back: Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church
In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to the Village.
The Abyssinian Baptist Church at 136-142 West 138th Street is the home of the second oldest African-American congregation in Manhattan, and has long been a center of civil rights and social justice activism. In honor of Black History Month, we explore the magnificent, far-reaching history of this architectural and social landmark, which was designated an individual landmark on July 13, 1993. The journey takes us, once again, beyond the Village and back.
The Abyssinian Baptist Church at 136-142 West 138th Street was formally dedicated on Sunday, June 17th, 1923. It was the first building Charles W. Bolton & Son, a Philadelphia-based firm, designed in New York City. It was also the last historically black church to move from the west side of Manhattan to Harlem, where it joined other noteworthy black churches including St. Philip’s Episcopal Church and the Mother A.M.E. Zion Church. At this time, some of the black congregations arriving in Harlem decided to purchase late-19th century church buildings originally built by white congregations which were moving out of the neighborhood, while others – like Abyssinian – chose to construct new structures altogether. Walking around Harlem today, one will notice that the formerly white churches tend to be located on corner lots, which were available during the neighborhood’s first wave of development. The newly built black churches of the 1920s, however, rise on mid-block locations, which were the only lots available those few decades later. Much like other Protestant churches dating to this period, Abyssinian was designed in the neo-Gothic style.
While this and other black congregations had migrated to Harlem to join the thriving black community just as the Harlem Renaissance was taking off, the effects of the Depression soon impacted the neighborhood. Abyssinian, in turn, became an important resource for not only members of the congregation but for the broader Harlem community. Led by Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and his son Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the church organized a “People’s Committee” to help individuals find employment, an Employment Bureau, a Free Food Kitchen, and an Adult Education School. Under Reverend Powell Jr., who became the church’s senior minister when his father retired in 1937 (and who also served eleven terms as a U.S. Congressman — the first black Congressman from New York, and an important if at times controversial figure of the civil rights movement), the church membership grew to 10,000, making Abyssinian one of the largest Protestant churches in the world. Meanwhile, Abyssinian continued to mobilize social justice campaigns, including an effort to integrate the staff of Harlem Hospital, and another to employ black workers at the New York World’s Fair.
Reverend Powell Jr.’s successors, Reverend Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor and Reverend Calvin Butts, also maintained the church’s legacy of supporting and enriching the surrounding neighborhood. Together they organized the Abyssinian Development Corporation in 1987, hoping to enhance housing and social services in Central Harlem. Through the Development Corporation, Abyssinian created the 100-unit senior citizen housing complex Abyssinian Towers, transitional housing at Abyssinian House, and the middle-income condominium apartments at West One Three Plaza. The church also partnered with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to restore two houses in Astor Row. Reverend Butts went on to lead AIDS Awareness, Alcoholics Anonymous, after-school, Africare, and senior support programs.
Although Abyssinian has led a rich life in Harlem for nearly a century, its history extends back more than a century before that. Like Mother Zion and other historic black churches, Abyssinian was founded in lower Manhattan, and progressively moved uptown before settling in Harlem, following the broader movements of the city’s black communities. Throughout one of its most illustrious chapters, in the second half of the 19th century, Abyssinian was located in a now-demolished building at 164-166 Waverly Place in Greenwich Village. Here it became one of the wealthiest, most influential African-American congregations in the city.
Abyssinian Baptist Church was originally organized by a group of black members who withdrew in protest from the First Baptist Church on Gold Street in June of 1808. The First Baptist Church segregated the congregation by race, forcing its black members to remain in what was called a “slave loft.” With the assistance of visiting minister Reverend Thomas Paul of the African Baptist Church in Boston, the Abyssinian congregation purchased a wooden church on Worth Street. On December 8, 1809, the African Baptist Church (as it was then known) was incorporated, taking the ancient name for Ethiopia, the native country of several of its founding members. The founding of the church was an affirmation of its members’ African heritage and emphasized the long tradition of Christian faith in Abyssinia.
Throughout the early 19th century, Abyssinian and its members suffered economic and social challenges resulting from rampant discrimination and increased housing and employment competition from a growing European immigrant population. Contending with local segregationist laws, the church was often forced to face foreclosure courts and eventually decided to sell its property on April 26, 1854. For the next decade, Abyssinian had no permanent home. During the Civil War, it moved temporarily to the Thompson Street area, where the Draft Riots took place.
In the second half of the 19th century, the church was led by the Reverend William Spellman (tenure 1856-1885), who is credited with ensuring the church’s survival during these years. Under Spellman’s leadership, on January 18, 1864, the church found a new permanent home at 164-166 Waverly Place between Sixth Avenue and Christopher Street. The heart of the city’s largest black community was then in Greenwich Village, and for much of the 19th century into the first years of the 20th, the area around Minetta Lane, Minetta Street, and Minetta Place was referred to as “Little Africa.” The church purchased the Waverly Place building for $4,000, which included “gas fixtures, carpeting, chairs and furniture.” While here, the congregation grew into one of the city’s wealthiest African-American congregations, by 1900 claiming over one thousand members. Its choir was admired as one of the best in the city, and the church contributed to a number of charitable activities, including support of its “indigent” members and contributions to city missions.
Increased immigration, the construction of the subway, and new housing opportunities elsewhere in Manhattan led to the movement of the black community out of Greenwich Village soon thereafter. In 1903, Abyssinian left its Waverly Street building and purchased 242 West 40th Street in the Tenderloin District. The two buildings which currently stand on the site of its prior home, 160-162 and 164-166 Waverly Place, were built in 1905 and 1907, around the time many traces of Little Africa disappeared from the area.
Little Africa lives on, instead, in the Abyssinian church, and other historically black churches now based in Harlem, which reflect the history of black New Yorkers for over two centuries.
To learn more about African-American history in the Village, check out our Civil Rights and Social Justice Map and the African-American History tour of our Greenwich Village Historic District: Then & Now Photos and Tours Map.