The St. Augustine's Project Inc.
The building that houses St. Augustine’s Church was built in 1828 for certain of New York City’s patrician elite and was originally known as All Saints’ Free Church. Today, it houses the largest African American congregation of any denomination on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and this year marks the 179th year of Episcopal Ministry in this now land marked building. Of interest about this building is the fact that the congregation worships in the shadow of two "Slave Galleries,” haunting, box-like rooms above the balcony where African Americans were forced to sit for much of the 19th century. Segregated seating in churches in the 19th century was pretty much the rule. It generally took one of three forms; a segregated section in the main sanctuary of the church; a segregated section in the balcony of the church or “hidden” rooms above the balcony in which the sight lines and acoustics were such that persons seated therein, on the bleacher like seats, could see and hear the service, but those seated in the rest of the church could not see them unless they stood up for one reason or another. We have two of these “hidden” rooms. This rare artifact of racial segregation in New York City stands as a stark, physical reminder of how the boundaries of marginalization were drawn in our State.
New York City's Lower East Side is one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the country. For new immigrants, as well as the neighborhood’s American-born racial minorities, attempts to gain access to the center of American life and power have been defined by constant struggles over boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. Conflicts among groups over representation in the neighborhood’s history are intimately connected to conflicts over material resources like housing and schools. Interestingly, hardly anyone, whether American-born or newly arrived immigrant had been taught or knew much about the contribution African Americans had made to the quality of life in Lower Manhattan or the rest of the state for that matter. At the heart of these conflicts lies the question: “Whose neighborhood is this?” In this context, the “Slave Galleries” Restoration and Preservation got underway.
Concerned that the African American population on the Lower East Side was diminishing as a result of gentrification, our Rector The Rev. Dr. Errol A. Harvey asked the leaders of the church to form a committee to preserve and interpret the “Slave Galleries”. We wanted to show physical evidence that African Americans were present in the neighborhood before the 1820s, and to leave behind a testament to African American struggles and contributions for the future. The cultural climate is such that the time is now to look at this important aspect of American History; the whole question of being marginalized yet again is at issue. It is our sincere belief that we must take possession of our own history to insure its preservation in order not to be forgotten.
From the very beginning we adopted the attitude that although we had every right to proceed with this project in whatever way we wanted it was more important to involve as many of the varied constituencies in our neighborhood, and beyond, as we could. We wanted the “Slave Galleries” Restoration and Preservation Program to have meaning for everyone so we sought the input of a variety of different groups, individuals, historians and preservationists. This approach has resulted in national and inter-national recognition for the “Slave Galleries” Program as a model for contemporary preservation and development of Historic Site Museums of Conscience.
As of now we have a nucleus of dedicated church and community members to carry on the restoration and preservation program. Our not-for-profit corporation now has 501[c] status and we are currently looking for funding to access consulting services for Strategic Planning, Fund Raising and Board Development. We have our research, which forms the basis of a docent source book. We have an architect’s existing conditions report to guide us in the decision making related to restoration. And, we have an architect’s recommendation for preparing the site for exhibit and viewing by the public. Certainly, we have a major fund raising task before us, but I feel we are up to it.
This important piece of American History is an incredibly motivating force in and of itself. The “Slave Galleries” have only begun to realize their potential as powerful tools for civic dialogue. As time goes on, the intent and hope remains that people from different communities and perspectives might form more substantial connections, and discover larger truths, and new options for collaboration and action. Lastly, it is our hope that other churches in the Diocese and elsewhere might begin to look at their archives and histories to determine if they might have a contribution to make to this vastly underreported aspect of American History.
The Rev. Deacon Edgar W. Hopper
Executive Director/On-Site Coordinator