Landmarked church that is restoring artifacts of racial segregation for study and education
St. Augustine's Church
The St. Augustine's Slave Gallery Project
St. Augustine's Episcopal Church was built in 1828 (known then as All Saints Free Church) for the city's patrician elite; today it houses the largest African American congregation of any denomination on the Lower East Side. The congregation worshops in the shadow of two "Slave Galleries": haunting, box-like rooms above the balcony where African Americans were forced to sit This rare artifact of racial segregation in New York stands as a stark, physical reminder of how and why boundaries of marginalization are drawn and contested.
By the 1990's, leaders of St. Augustine's Church became concerned that the African American population on the Lower East Side was diminishing as a result of gentrification. We became concerned that the African American presence in the neighborhood would disappear. In response, St. Augustine's Rector, the Reverend Dr. Errol A. Harvey formed a committee to preserve and interpret the "Slave Galleries," and named the Reverend Deacon Edgar W. Hopper as its chair and "On Site Coordinator." Father Harvey wanted to show that "we were here." Our "Slave Galleries" Committee wanted to show physical evidence that African Americans were present in the neighborhood as early as the 1820s, and to leave behind a testament to African American struggles and contributions for the future. After more than two centuries, we fear that African Americans will be pushed out of the Lower East Side altogether.
We launched the Slave Galleries Project in February 2000 to restore and interpret the galleries. In the process we have worked with many preservation, historical and religious groups, including an important collaboration with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Our research has been genealogical -- to help us determine what we could about the founders of the church and who could have possibly sat in the "Slave Galleries," and architectural --to learn all we could about what were conditions like in the galleries. How were they used? What could the galleries tell us about the early nineteenth century attitudes toward this insidious form of segregation?
We have made substantial progress toward our goals, including the establishment of The St. Augustine's Project, a 501(c)(3) Not For Profit Corporation, and are now seeking to raise funds to restore the space and make the galleries accessible to the public. We also mount other exhibits and programs at the church that draw attention to the history of African Americans in New York, and the history of slavery. For the last few years, we have re-created the freedom parade that black New Yorkers held to mark New York State's Manumission Day -- July 4, 1827 -- the day that the state's emancipation act declaring that all slaves in the state would be free took effect (with certain important exceptions). Our Third Annual Manumission Day Freedom Parade will be held in July 2006. We believe that slavery is not African American history, but American history. (June 2006)