Episcopal News Service

March 9, 2000

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New York church reopens its slave gallery to stand as a lesson in pain--and hope

by Judith Milone

(ENS) Imagine waking up on Sunday morning knowing you'll be in church in a few hours. But instead of leisurely pouring a second cup of coffee or glancing at the Sunday paper, you must wait and watch attentively, ready to answer your owner's every beck and call. And instead of walking or taking the bus to church, you row your master and his family in a boat across the roiling East River from Brooklyn to lower Manhattan.

Once at church, the family walks to its pew on the main floor. You climb a steep, narrow staircase and spend the time during the service standing with others in a "gallery," a small, dark, grim room behind the church's balcony.

You are a slave, a person of African descent in legal bondage to a white man. The place is New York City. The church, St. Augustine's, is Episcopal.

Not only did slavery exist until it was for the most part ended in 1827 in New York State, the average slaveholder in New York owned more slaves than his counterparts in any state north of Virginia. Even after the legal abolition of slavery in New York, some cases of slavery, as well as deep-rooted racism and legislated segregation, persisted.

On February 26, in a world very different from that of 1827, church members, historians and conservationists gathered at the church to memorialize the gallery and launch its restoration and reopening, this time to serve as a reminder of a shameful part of the country's--and the church's--history.

The moving ceremony, punctuated by African drums and a performance by St. Augustine's Liturgical Choir, also inaugurated the Lower East Side Community Preservation Program, of which the gallery is a part.

"We always knew it was there," states the Rev. Errol A. Harvey, rector of St. Augustine's, a vibrant congregation of 150 that meets in the attractive, colonial-style church built in the mid-1820s.

The congregation, once all white, is now predominantly black, and proud of its African-American heritage. The handsome sanctuary has an altar bearing a kinte cloth frontal and there are prominently placed portraits of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Silent testimony

Harvey described the slave gallery--two small, unventilated rooms located in the rear of the church, above the nave's balcony, as a "testimony of good people colluding with a monstrous evil." In times past, even though the congregation knew that the rooms had been built for a horrific use, there was no urge to acknowledging the slave gallery, he said. Only in the aftermath of the enormous social and political changes in our country since the civil rights movement, and in today's openness about claiming history and remembering evils, did St. Augustine's form a committee, just over a year ago.

The slave gallery committee led the way in making the story known, having the area memorialized, and beginning scholarly research to answer the many questions about the gallery's use and the life of African-Americans in the early part of the 19th century in New York City.

Joining in that work is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a bustling organization that preserves and presents the history of that section of Manhattan. In an address during the February program, Ruth Abram, founder of the museum and its current president, said, "We have gathered and resolved to convert the slave gallery from its original intent as an instrument of separation and degradation to a symbol of our refusal to participate by action or even by silence in the establishment or maintenance of policies or customs of separation."

The museum is collaborating with the parish in restoring the gallery for public view and has raised funds to establish the Lower East Side Community Preservation Program to help. To begin its work, the project has already put out a call for artifacts related to the history of slavery and the post-Colonial era on the Lower East Side. Other work will have to be done to prepare the space for visits by groups and produce materials to help explain the history. Harvey said he hoped the space would be ready by the end of this year.

While there are gaps in history, colorful and perhaps apocryphal stories have been kept alive by oral tradition at St. Augustine's. Edgar Allen Poe allegedly sat in the back of St. Augustine's and meditated. The infamous Boss Tweed--the rogue of 19th century New York politics--reportedly hid in the gallery itself during his mother's funeral. A fugitive at the time, Tweed made a quick escape after the funeral, the slave gallery having successfully kept him from the arm of the law.

Many questions

To confirm the history of the gallery the project has important research to undertake. The only other extant known slave gallery is in Old South Church, Boston. Are there others? Why does St. Augustine's building have a gallery while other Episcopal churches built at the same time or before do not? Could slaves worship in any way while they were held there? Were slaves baptized? Were they in shackles? Was there any connection between St. Augustine's gallery and the underground railroad, which is known to have used another house of worship in the area? The need for objective answers is real.

One of the February 26 speakers for whom the day had special meaning was A. J. Williams Myers, now professor of black studies at the State University of New York campus at New Paltz. Myers spent some of his youth in the parish, where his father was vicar in the 1950s. Discussing the gallery, he said, "We all knew about it but weren't able to deal with it." Now with his vast knowledge of history of slavery, Myers declared, "The gallery's story must be told so that we can begin the process of healing and so that those who come after us will make a better world."

For information about the slave gallery or the Lower East Side Community Preservation Project, contact Liz Sevcenko, project director of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 66 Allen Street, New York, NY 10002, phone (212) 431-0233, X230, or check the museum's website, www.tenement.org. You can also write to Edgar W. Hopper, on-site coordinator, St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, 333 Madison Street, New York, NY 10002.

--Judith Milone is a correspondent for The Episcopal New Yorker, the newspaper of the Diocese of New York, for which this article was written. 

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