Church thought to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad
Taylor, Clarence. The Black Churches of Brooklyn. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Siloam Presbyterian Church
Definitely a stop on the Underground Railroad. Not that distinctive physically.
First of all, there is the church's longstanding history as a site of African American significance, a heritage that proudly dates from the 19th century. Founded in 1849 under the leadership of Rev. James Gloucester (who had himself been enslaved), Siloam Presbyterian emerged as an important New York stop on the Underground Railroad. They also were early supporters of abolitionist John Brown, who apparently visited the church before his ill-fated Harpers Ferry raid, and received a $25 offering from the churchmembers.
It's a more recent community offering, though, that fuels this nomination. For 18 years, Siloam Presbyterian has been the site of a remarkable exhibition of African American history--"Footprints of Our History"--that fills the building's 3rd-floor gym. At the center of this exhibit is a 3/4-scale cutaway model of a 19th-century slaving vessel, the Brookes. Crafted out of styrofoam and wood, the room-size model hangs from the gymnasium's rafters, where it powerfully demonstrates the conditions endured on the trans-Atlantic slaving voyage. The close-together "decks"--all built to scale according to the vessel's original plans--are filled with bodies crafted over the years by church-members. These "bodies"--largely consisting of cloth stuffed with paper and shaped to resemble the enslaved--comprise a telling testament of the conditions onboard the Brookes, yielding a room-size portrayal that is both horrifying and compelling.
The walls of the gym, meanwhile, are entirely covered with framed documents that chronicle the scope of African American history. Almost all original, these documents range from illustrated pages from 19th-century issues of "Harper's Weekly" and manumission documents to bills of sales of enslaved persons; they also include a signed deed from Frederick Douglass and selected, non-paper artifacts, including a pair of slavery-time child manacles. The documents all come from the vast personal collection of William Jordan, a long-time member of the congregation. For years, Mr. Jordan has been offering tours of the "Footprints of History" exhibit, telling the story of the Brookes (which he constructed in the gym) and leading visitors and school groups through the story on the walls.
The steps leading up to the gym begin the story, with each inscribed with the name of a West African tribal group; the steps leading out of the gym, in turn, are inscribed with American names, signaling the shift from an African to an African American identity.
Siloam Presbyterian has always been a socially engaged African American congregation. The "Footprints of Our History" exhibit--a permanent installation in the church--keeps this community engagement very much alive.
One needs only hear the passion in William Jordan's voice as he leads visitors through the exhibit, or watch the eyes of schoolchildren as they face firsthand the experience of the Middle Passage, to know the significance of "Footprints of Our History," and--more broadly--of the mission that Siloam Presbyterian has assumed as its own. (March 2010)