The Beginning 1835…
Peoples A.M.E. Zion is the oldest African-American church in Syracuse and the central New York region. It’s rich history dates back almost three centuries becoming an integral part in the fight to end slavery and seek equality for all mankind.
In the year of our Lord 1835, Bishop Christopher Rush, presiding bishop of the Geneseo Conference (now Western New York Conference) of the A.M.E. Zion Church, sent Reverend Thomas James to Syracuse, New York to establish a church for “Negros” of that city. Being a runaway slave himself, Reverend James was given the responsibility of assisting other runaway slaves from the south and providing a link to the “Underground Railroad” – a name given to the secret system whereby runaway slaves were conducted to the north by free blacks and sympathetic whites. Harriet Tubman was chief conductor of this “railroad.”
By 1841, the A.M.E. Zion Church in Syracuse began with house meetings known as the A.M.E. Zion Society. This society organization continued until July 4, 1842, at which time the church was formally organized under the administration of Reverend James, its first pastor.
Among those trustees assisting him was: John Lyles (who later entered the ministry and became one of its pastors), Prince Jackson, William Jenkins, John Decato, Nathan Nelson, Peter Hornbeck, and Joseph Bristol, along with a number of other lay members.
According to the late Reverend Arthur Marshall, Jr., a former pastor at the time the church celebrated its Centennial Anniversary, after the church was organized, it was called “The first African Methodist Episcopal Church of the Village of Syracuse.”The first worship services were held in private homes of individual members, these services continued in this form until 1848.
A.M.E Zion Church’s First Home..
Being aided by the First Methodist Episcopal Church (now First United Methodist Church, in downtown Syracuse), a lot at 114 South Crouse was purchased from Mr. and Mrs. Charles Brease, apparently along with a church building. According to records at the Onondaga Historical Association, in 1931 and 1936, “the A M.E. Zion Church purchased and moved into an existing site at that location in 1848.” The Reverend Joseph D. Virgil, pastor in 1936, is quoted as saying “there was moved a church building occupied in 1837 by the (First Methodist Episcopal) Church and replaced by a large one.” The names of the first trustees involved in this transaction were: Prince Jackson, Charles Meyers, Richard Wandall, Frances Key, and John R. Foster. Other trustees or officials were: John Lyles (probably pastor), William Jenkins, John Decato, Nathan Nelson, Peter Hornbeck, and Joseph Bristol. This first edifice was located on South Crouse Avenue near Water Street. The building was dedicated by Bishop Christopher Rush and used by the A.M.E. Zion Church until 1863.
In a 1936 Post-Standard newspaper article, the Reverend Joseph D. Virgil is quoted as saying that in 1863 “Largely through the generosity of Jacob Crouse, a brick church was built on the South Crouse Avenue site,” by the Reverend William Cromwell, pastor of the church at the time. This building was used until January 1911. Up to 1887, the A.M.E. Zion Church was the only “Colored” society in Syracuse. Prior to that time, all denominational groups worshipped together. However, in 1887 the Baptist persuasion within became so expressive until various members of the congregation decided to set up a Baptist society. This resulted in several persons withdrawing from the A.M.E. Zion Church and formed what is now known as “Bethany Baptist Church.”
The A.M.E. Zion Church was the meeting place for many abolitionist and public meetings during the pre-civil war period. According to the late Reverend Arthur Marshall, “In the rear of the South Crouse Avenue property stood the First Methodist Episcopal Church. And although it was not a station of the Underground Railroad, it was the planning place for a great deal of Underground Railroad activities.” The Zion congregation worshipped at the South Crouse Avenue property until 1911.
Between the years 1909 and 1910, under the leadership of Reverend Samuel Bailey and Charles E. Colton, an architect, a new building was erected at 711 East Fayette Street. It was officially opened in January of 1911 and formally dedicated on October 30th of that year by Bishop C.R. Harris. Mayor Edward Schoeneck of the city of Syracuse and Dr. J.E. Mason, a former pastor, were the principal speakers.
The old South Crouse Avenue property was sold to Earl C. Fralock who brought it to be used as a cleaning establishment at the price of $3,000. Reverend Joseph Virgil recounted that “it was then the name of the society was changed, previously having been called A.M.E. Zion Church, now People’s A.M.E. Zion Church.
The People’s A.M.E. Zion Church
According to the late Reverend Emory C. Proctor, the church’s 51st Pastor, the name of People’s A.M.E. Zion Church, only became officially recorded as such in the Onondaga County Court House on April 4, 1969, when the church was incorporated under his pastorate.
People’s hosted the first Young People’s Congress (YPC) in 1928. YPC was one of a kind youth organization in Zion. The original intention was to train and increase the participation of young people in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The pastoral administrative of the late Reverend Emory C. Proctor was the longest in the church’s history 1956-1974.
Reverend Proctor was a man of stern convictions, sterling character, and soon became both a Religious and Civil Rights leader on the local as well as the national scene. While here, he fought against discrimination in employment, housing, and education. Reverend Proctor was instrumental in introducing the study of Black History in the Syracuse City School District through concern for his son Dennis receiving biased education in American History. In 1963, he helped initiate a Black Voter Registration Drive. In the November elections, he was elected to the County Board of Supervisors representing the former 15ihWard of the City from 1968-1970.
2306 South Salina….
Reverend Proctor was a catalyst for minority hiring at Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation (now known as National Grid.) in addition, Reverend Proctor was a former president of the Syracuse Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and received many awards for his community involvement. In June of 1974, the Reverend Donald Holiness was appointed to the People’s A.M. Zion Church. During his two years at People’s he was credited with clinching the transaction, which brought the congregation out of the moderate sized edifice at 711 East Fayette Street to the commodious location at 2306 South Salina Street on August 31, 1975. The church has continued to worship at this location to the present day.
In the conference year 1976, the Reverend Earl R. Cheek was sent to the People’s congregation. His administration lasted until 1985. During that time, Reverend Cheek was involved with the issues of youth, education, drug abuse, and police brutality. In 1976, he led the congregation into instituting Debutantes for Christ Cotillion. This program at the end of each school year, presented young ladies in Junior High and Senior High School to the community as “Young Women With a Dedication Service to God.” He opened the doors of People’s church to the Black Alcoholics Anonymous every Sunday morning, feeding them a free breakfast, and delivering a short sermon. He also opened the doors of the church to the Southside Preparatory Academy, an “after school” program geared toward helping Black students build their skills in subjects in which they were experiencing difficulty. The Reverend Earl Cheek was a very eloquent preacher and attracted listeners from all faiths to hear him preach.
In the conference year 1985, Reverend James F. Thornton was appointed to People’s. Under his vigorous leadership the church was able to burn it’s mortgage. He was founding Co-Convener of the Southside Clergy Cluster. During his leadership with the aid of the Southside Clergy Cluster, a monument was erected and dedicated to undercover officer, Wallie Howard, Jr., who was slain in a drug trafficking operation on the city’s south side and longtime community and Civil Rights Activist, and pulpiter, the Reverend Emory Proctor. During his tenure he served on numerous community boards and organizations.
In the conference year 1995, the Reverend Sherman G. Dunmore, Sr., was appointed to People’s Church. During his appointment he was instrumental in spearheading projects that updated the current edifice. Those improvements have been: re-carpeting the church, renovating the gym, making the church handicap accessible, renovations of the bathrooms, the sanctuary, the Sunday School area, and the Trustees room; enlarged the pulpit, updated the lighting system, purchased a new church sign and installing new steps. New stained glass windows dedicated to the memory of loyal members where added to the sanctuary. The church also purchased a church van. Many of the improvements were necessary after the Labor Day storm of 1998. Reverend Dunmore was bold and innovative in his ministry approach by holding Upper Room services during Lent, Easter Sunrise service at the Carousel Mall, and partnering with other agencies to provide Health Awareness Kidney screening. During his tenure, People’s hosted the 152nd Western New York Annual Conference, which had not been held at the church in over fifty years. He was a vocal activist in the community where he served as the president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Syracuse and was the founder of the Ten Point to Reduce Juvenile Gun Violence. He also served on various boards in the community.
The People’s Church… TODAY
In 2006, the Reverend Daren C. Jaime was appointed to the People’s Church. Under Pastor Jaime’s leadership, People’s formed the People’s Community Development Corporation (PCDC), bringing community, economic development and revitalization to the heart of the Syracuse’s south side. Since 2007, PCDC acquired a dilapidated mixed-use commercial strip plaza property, two homes and three vacant lots adjacent to the church. In 2010, PCDC, was awarded a grant for the commercial row resulting in a major exterior façade renovation and the rehabilitation of an existing three-bedroom apartment. Pastor Jaime extended his ministry by adding an 8:00 am Sunday Worship Service as well as a wide range of other growing ministries and outreach initiatives.
People’s A.M.E. Zion continues to be a place that cultivates the community through ministry and outreach not just in Syracuse, but across the globe.