Oldest standing church in upstate N.Y. college town was stop on the Underground Railroad

Matt Steecker, Ithaca Journal
Oct. 29, 2019


On Sundays, people in Ithaca, New York's African American community gather to worship at St. James AME Zion Church — the oldest existing church building in the city and a landmark that is instrumental to the Southside neighborhood's black heritage.

The history of the church dates back more than 180 years and includes having served as a stop on the Underground Railroad and as a host to abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

St. James A.M.E. Zion Church was built in 1836, three years after being chartered in 1833 by a group of African-American Methodists who had previously attended African-American Sunday school at Ithaca’s First Methodist Episcopal Church, according to Historic Ithaca, which preserves historic buildings in the city.

Freedom-seekers worshipped in the church during the 1800s. But that, of course, was not the only reason they were there.

They were slaves who had run away from the South and were seeking a safe location on the Underground Railroad where they could gather their strength and supplies before continuing their journey north or west.

Although the church is a historic location, there is relatively little documentation showing information on St. James AME Zion Church as a stop on the Underground Railroad because harboring freedom-seekers was illegal and keepers of safe houses were at great risk after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. Despite the lack of records, there are estimates on the number of slave fugitives during the time of the Underground Railroad.

As 75,000 to 100,000 slaves fled the South during the early to mid-1800s, about 100 of them stopped at St. James AME Zion Church in Ithaca during a 30- to 40-year period.

At the church, the congregation and pastors, including Thomas James and Jermain Loguen, were involved with the Underground Railroad for a period of time, according to Tompkins County Historian Carol Kammen. After the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850, their level of involvement probably decreased significantly.

"After 1850, I would think there was little activity directly in the church as it would have been too obvious a target for anyone looking for fugitives or those who helped them," Kammen said. "But certainly the congregation and the pastor were involved."

As a leader in the underground network, Harriet Tubman may have left four people in Ithaca, Kammen said.

"Most run away people, or freedom seekers, did not come through Ithaca or Tompkins County," she said.

Many of the fugitives who stopped in Ithaca were en route to Canada.

"Very few of them were in our 1860 census, so they stopped and then went on to places of greater safety," Kammen said. "My opinion is that the route north was uncertain at most stages, that it was plastic, meaning that it went one way one time and another way the next depending upon who was available, who could help, what dangers were perceived, and it also had to do with luck."
Built in 1836, St. James AME Zion in Ithaca served as an Underground Railroad stop for fugitive slaves. St. James was also one of the first AME Zion churches in the United States, as well as one of the oldest churches in Ithaca. St. James AME Zion is located on Cleveland Ave. in Ithaca, Tompkins County.
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Throughout its history, the community church evolved in many ways and has seen many uses, including as a job-placement center for African-Americans and as a location where soldiers enlisted for the Civil War. It was also a location where the oppressed and unemployed congregated at during the civil rights movement.

St. James AME Zion Church was listed as a local landmark in 1975 and on the National and State Registers of Historic Places in 1982.

"Tubman's heritage and the church is instrumental to the Southside of Ithaca," said Rev. Paris Price, the pastor of St. James AME Zion Church.
"Everything that has ever happened to us is there to make us stronger."
-John Trudell