No. 20  December 2002
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

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Feature of the month

white walls, black churches

There were 412 Negro churches in the state in 1938, according to the WPA directory of churches (The Works Progress Administration was a New Deal agency that employed writers on a variety of projects, including a complete listing of the extant churches in each county.). Most of the buildings that house black congregations, of course, do not date to the 19th century, and a number of early congregations did not have their own church, but shared space with other congregations or held services in homes and in public buildings, a pattern familiar to other denominations as well. The county histories written in the 1880s do a notably poor job of inventorying the black churches, so it is very difficult to arrive at an estimate of the number of surviving 19th century black churches in the state, most of which are African Methodist Episcopal (AME), AME Zion, or Baptist congregations. To date I have photographed 25 churches belonging to one of those denominations that date to the 19th century, and I know about another 10. But that sample is far from complete. Even in counties where I have concentrated (Hunterdon, Somerset, Warren, Essex, Hudson and Burlington) I feel there must have been more black churches whose identity is obscured, and Monmouth, Camden, and Salem ought to have several more each, given the substantial black populations in those counties throughout the 19th century. This article is therefore less an inventory or analysis than a very preliminary report that I hope will stimulate people with more knowledge than I have to contact me with additional information. (In a side note, one person I corresponded with suggested I had no business investigating the topic and ought to leave it to black scholars; another said all I had to do was to open my eyes—the state was filled with black churches.)
      I estimate there may be as many as 60-70 churches from the 19th century that were built by black congregations. There are many more old churches now occupied by black congregations, but they were originally erected by mainstream white, mostly Presbyterian and Reformed congregations. Most of the buildings put up by black congregations are simple wooden frame buildings, reflecting the modest financial circumstances of their congregations. Most have been modified and/or renovated extensively, so only a few, in my opinion, bear much resemblance to the original churches. Many of the earliest congregations have prospered, and did as their white counterparts did—rebuilt their churches in this century. The upshot is that any inventory, no matter how complete or representative (and this surely is neither) will not adequately reflect the history of black church architecture in the 19th century. Having said all that, let us examine some of what we have.
      In contrast to the Presbyterian churches in much of the state and the Quaker meetinghouses in the southern areas, black churches are rarely found in the center of town. No one would have sold prime property to them, if they had the money—a problem experienced by early Catholic and some Methodist congregations as well. With few exceptions, they are found on the periphery in Mt Holly, Madison, Cape May, South Bound Brook and Lambertville, or they are found out in the countryside, as in Othelo (Cumberland county), Whitesboro (Cape May county) and Rocktown (Montgomery Township in Somerset county). A few are found in towns founded by blacks, such as the one in the top photo in this article, of the Solomon Wesley Methodist church in Blackwood (Camden county) that is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
      In Burlington county are several early AME churches; pictured here is one in Burlington itself and another in Mt. Holly. The Bethlehem AME church in Burlington (left) was erected in 1836. Obviously remodeled, the size alone suggests that its congregation was both substantial and prosperous. It sits near the center of town, close to the river and the Waterworks. The Mt. Moriah AME congregation in Mt Holly (right) built more modestly, about the same time (1835). The congregation was organized by 1826 and their first church was built a little west of this one on Washington Road, where their cemetery still stands. Where the Burlington church exhibits elements of mainstream church architecture, Mt. Moriah draws little or nothing from other churches. That Washington Road neighborhood hosts an early Catholic church and an early Methodist church as well as two 19th century black churches.
     Gouldtown, in Cumberland county, was an important early black community. Appropriately, it is the site of one of the most interesting black churches, Trinity AME (right). A traditional meetinghouse in the style of the Springfield Presbyterian church, it was erected about 1860.

In 1878, the Mt Pisgah AME (left) congregation erected this fine brick church in Salem. Mt Pisgah is one of the earliest congregations in the state, organized in 1800. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It draws on a rich legacy of southern New Jersey architecture, which is in turn derived from the Georgian traditions of Philadelphia.
      Allen AME in Cape May (below) is a very simple but nicely proportioned design. A suggestion of a Gothic arch over the entrance, but otherwise no elaboration. I believe it was built about 1890.
      The black population of the state was substantial, varying from 7-10% throughout the colonial period and into the end of the 19th century; in some counties (Monmouth, Somerset, Bergen) it was as high as 12-17%, with a substantial proportion of free blacks throughout the state's existence. Before the founding of the black churches, it is difficult to say where the bulk of blacks in the state worshiped. If the percentage of blacks who where members of churches paralleled that of whites, only about 7% of the black population were church members, although more than that may have attended occasional services. Records of early Presbyterian churches in Lamington and Flemington list “colored” members, sometimes indicated by a first name only, and often by the notation that the individual was a slave. Seating was separate (blacks sat in the gallery, along with children) and as late as 1857, burials at Lamington were still separate.
     White churches, especially the Quakers, get a lot of credit for assisting blacks before and after the Civil War, but I suspect that, if the record were more complete, we would find that black congregations did more to help themselves than is generally acknowledged. A part of that record begins with a more complete inventory of the early black congregations in the state—and their churches.

For additional information, there are three invaluable sources: Giles Wright's, Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History (Rutgers, 1998), C.B. Coane's, The Negro Church in New Jersey (WPA, 1938), and Graham Hodges', Slavery and Freedom in the Rural North: African Americans in Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1665-1865 , (Madison House, 1997).



Copyright © 2002 Frank L. Greenagel