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A Black Church in Williamsburgh

May 4, 2012 10:00 AM | 0 comments

Leslie's recent post on the Italian marionette theater reminds me that research can be rewarding--a useful reminder, because sometimes one's best efforts bring only moderate success, or worse. I discovered this anew while investigating the next stop on our continuing tour of the Brooklyn Collection's manuscripts, the A.M.E. Zion Church Collection. This unassuming handful of mortgages and receipts, while superficially uninteresting, actually provides us with rare evidence of the activities of one of the earliest black churches in Williamsburgh. But finding further information on the history of the church and its trustees proved difficult.

Black Population Distribution, Brooklyn, 1863

In the early 1850s, the Burgh was on the brink of consolidation into greater Brooklyn. (A neglected corner of our web site called Our Brooklyn provides a short history of Williamsburg.) According to our finding aid, the AME Zion Churches were established by black Methodists in reaction to the racism of the larger Methodist community and its unwillingness to take an organized stand against slavery.  Church members were active abolitionists and were "rumored to have used some of their church locations as ... Underground Railroad stations. The church to which these documents relate was located on North Second St near Union Avenue in Williamsburg, a neighborhood inhabited by numerous African Americans after the abolition of slavery in 1827."  The population map above compiled by June Koffi and Rioghan Kirchner shows the black population of Brooklyn a few years later--1863--still with a significant concentration in Williamsburgh.

Among the individuals who were signatories to mortgages were Oliver Fields, Peter Lee (Rector), Benjamin Portland, Major West, and Thomas Worlds. Lemuel Richardson, one of the founders of the Williamsburgh Bank, was also involved. I decided to try to find out more about some of these people. Where exactly did they live? What work did they do?  Who were their families?

List of the church's trustees in 1851 and 1855

OLIVER FIELDS--In the Williamsburgh City Directories, an individual by the name of Oliver Field* (the asterisk marking him as a person of color) is listed as a "Laborer," living at 81 North 4th St in 1848-9. In the 1860 census he is 47 years old. Although no specific address is given, the local post office is "Wmsburgh NY". Oliver is living with Jane, aged 32, and a number of children--Thomas, 18, Isabella, 10, Lidia, 4, William, 2 and Oliver, 15. The immediate neighbors are also black, bearing family names Wilson and Raymond;  their jobs include seaman, porter and waiter. And there the story more or less starts and finishes, except for one mention of an Oliver Fields in a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article about a brutal stabbing in Battle Row. The witness, Thomas Fields (perhaps Oliver's son) says, "Rogers [the victim] was on the sidewalk, my aunt called me in, and when I came out the crowd was at No. 2's door...Oliver Fields (probably referring to his brother Oliver Jr.) and John Paterson were there..."

THOMAS WORLDS is listed in the 1850-51 Williamsburgh Directory as a "carman", and in the 1860 census as a laborer, born in New York around 1822. He lives with Mary J. (31), Rachel A. (7) Stephen W. (4), and Rachael (66). The whole family is listed as black. World's Civil War draft registration (his name spelled Wurles) describes him as a cartman, living on North 6th St. Now, strangely, in 1870 a Thomas Worlds in Newtown, Queens is still living with a Mary J. --but now the couple is listed as white! Was this an unforseen effect of moving from Brooklyn to Queens? We will never know!

BENJAMIN PORTLAND or PORTLEN, laborer, lived on North 4th and North 6th Streets. Like Fields above, Portland seems to have found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. A police jotter article dated 1860 (under the heading "Practical Amalgamation" and written in the highly offensive language of the time,) places him in a "notoriously bad 'crib''' at the foot of Leonard Street during a police raid. Exactly what the people in the house at the time were accused of, aside from simply being there together, is not stated. 

All three men are named among others in a Court Notices published in May 1855 as defendents in a suit brought by Warren and William Mitchell against the Trustees of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Village of Williamsburgh. The Church had defaulted on its mortgage, and the mortgage holders felt that it was time "something should be done," according to our documents. 

A history of the AME Zion Church credits Rev. R. H. Stitt with improving the dire financial situation of the Williamsburgh church in the 1880s. After spending a year  "repairing the church, paying incidental expenses, and raising the interest on the great debt that burdens [it], he was removed to the Fleet St Church, where he preached with...phenomenal success."

Churches come and go--they grow, wither, amalgamate and separate.  Clearly, teasing out a complete history of the Williamsburgh AME Zion Church is a no job for an amateur--so beyond this I'll leave it to the real historians!