BLACK CHURCHES & FRATERNAL SOCIETIES - BROOKLYN, NEW YORK
The church has long been at the heart of African-American life in Brooklyn, once known as the “city of churches.” In the 1760s, Captain Thomas Webb, a British convert to Wesleyan Methodism, began holding outdoor services in downtown Brooklyn before purchasing land on Sands Street in 1794 for what would become the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Brooklyn. The church was notable for its integrated white and black congregation, highly unusual for the time; however, African-American parishioners soon grew displeased with the discriminatory treatment they endured from the majority-white congregation. In 1818, blacks from the Sands Street church sent a delegation to Philadelphia to meet with Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in that city. After gaining recognition from the AME Church and the State of New York, the breakaway group founded the First African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church, later known as the Bridge Street Church after it moved to that locale in 1854. The present Bridge Street Church is located on Stuyvesant Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where it continues to be a vital part of the community.
During the Civil War, Brooklyn’s small free black population was given a boost by the exodus of African Americans from Manhattan following the notorious Draft Riots. Small black communities, clustered near the waterfront in Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg and Fort Greene, were gradually drawn further out to areas like “Crow Hill” (Crown Heights) and Weeksville, the latter being the speculative venture of James Weeks, an African-American real estate developer. Successive waves of migrants from the post-Emancipation South were followed by immigrants from the Caribbean after World War I. By the mid-twentieth century, de facto segregation, government policies, and “redlining” by banks and real estate agencies had combined to concentrate people of African descent in Central Brooklyn, particularly in the neighborhoods of Fort Greene, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights.
Church life continues to play a highly visible role in black Brooklyn, even as Bloomberg-era gentrification and high rents compound decades of neglect and threaten to displace older residents. While some of the images here—particularly those of the storefront churches which proliferated with the spread of various Pentacostal and Evangelical Protestant denominations—suggest a kind of picturesque decay, many congregations, such as Concord Street Baptist (founded 1847) and First AME Zion (1885) continue to thrive.
An interesting analogue to the black church has been the contemporaneous development of African-American fraternal societies, most famously the Prince Hall Freemasons, members of which continue to meet at the Enoch Grand Lodge on Nostrand Avenue (various Prince Hall lodges also utilize the larger Brooklyn Masonic Temple on Clermont Avenue in Fort Greene). Masonic insignia featuring the square and compass with the letter “G” abound on the building, seen in its stained glass and on its flagpole, and reflected on license-plate holders, window decals and the awning of a deli across the street. Founded by Prince Hall, a free African American who chartered an “African Lodge” during the Revolutionary War, the Prince Hall Masons formed part of a vital network linking antebellum free black communities, fostering close ties to the churches and taking an active part in antislavery agitation. In the Reconstruction South, black politicians and ministers organized Masonic lodges alongside AME churches and Republican Party clubs. Despite being excluded from the mainstream, whites-only iterations of fraternal societies, blacks formed their own lodges of Prince Hall Masons as well as of fraternal offshoots like the Odd-Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, and the Order of the Eastern Star. Membership in these organizations exploded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as part of a general mania for secret societies and associations of all kinds. But for African Americans, the benevolent and charitable functions of these groups only grew in importance as segregation forced them to rely increasingly on institutions within their own communities for mutual aid and support.
One such organization, the all-female Grand United Order of Tents, was established in Norfolk, Virginia in 1866 by two former slaves, Annetta Lane and Harriet Taylor (the group may in fact have originated before the Civil War as part of the Underground Railroad organized to shelter runaway slaves). Their somewhat forlorn-looking former headquarters on MacDonough Street, in the former mansion of an Irish-American railroad magnate and banker, bears silent testimony to this now often-overlooked facet of African-American associational life.
Words - Sean Griffin; Images - Leah Frances
In order of appearance - top to bottom, left to right:
1) Vision Pentecostal Church of God - 1050 Utica Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11203
2) Glorious Trinity Baptist Church - 285 Kingston Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11213
3) Up South Missionary Baptist Church - 553 Waverly Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11238
4) The Most Worshipful Enoch Grand Lodge of the Order of Masons - 423 Nostrand Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11216
5) The Almighty God Ministries International - 329 Nostrand Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11216
6) Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church - 228 Decatur St, Brooklyn, NY 11233
7) Church of God Victory - 658 Washington Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11238
8) South Brooklyn Seventh-day Adventist Church - 1313 Bedford Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11216-2928
9) Eastern District Grand Tent #3, Grand United Order of Tents - 87 MacDonough St, Brooklyn, NY 11216
10) Lovely Hill Baptist Church - 375 Throop Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11221
11) The Greater New Harvest Church of Christ - 210 Kingston Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11213
12) First AME Zion Church - 54 MacDonough St, Brooklyn, NY 11216
13) Bridge Street AME Church - 277 Stuyvesant Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11221
14) The Concord Baptist Church of Christ - 833 Gardner C. Taylor Boulevard (formerly Marcy Avenue), Brooklyn, NY 11216
15) Grace Baptist Church - 1200 Bedford Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11216
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Sean Griffin is a Ph.D student in U.S. History at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
Northeast Regional Guide Leah Frances was born in a small fishing village off the west coast of Canada and raised in Victoria, British Columbia. In pursuit of a graphic design career she moved to New York City in 2005 and now calls Crown Heights, Brooklyn, home. She spends her days in the production departments of magazines and her evenings studying at the International Center of Photography. Weekends you will find her in the back of a Greyhound bus, map in hand. Leah posts daily at americanroads.tumblr.com.