Men and women who survived American slavery built St. Charles African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Sparkill in 1865. This sanctuary is a monument to a church movement that included abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Led by Rev. Louis Sanders since 1981, St. Charles is directly linked to the period of history chronicled in the Oscar-nominated film 12 Years a Slave.
When Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning,” he was reflecting on the racial dynamic that led to the creation of Zion Methodism. Sadly, King was describing the state of race relations in the mid-20th century. The legal and cultural customs that discouraged mixed-race religious observance have been a constant feature in American history.
In her exhaustive and exquisite 1983 history of her church and denomination, Jacqueline L. Holland wrote about the conditions facing black Christians in 18th century New York. “There were spots of negro membership in white churches, but it was fashion to segregate them. Negroes were seated in the back of the church, or in the balcony.”
Holland notes that after a slave revolt in New York City in 1712 “whites exhibited a common fear of slave organizations of any kind.” When black congregations sought to hold their own services on Sunday evenings after their European breathren were done worshiping, a motion was adopted at a Methodist congress that said “we don’t want negroes meeting alone together in our church at night.”
In order to have unfettered rights of religious expression, an African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in New York City in 1796. In 1822, James Varick, who was born in Newburgh, NY, was ordained as the first Bishop of the AME Zion Church.
From its inception, the AME Zion Church was an active participant in the struggle to abolish slavery. According to Holland’s account, “The Underground Railroad was practically a church movement.” The Underground Railroad was a euphemism for a clandestine network of individuals and institutions that helped slaves escape from legalized bondage in the American south.
St. Charles was built in 1865 by Rev. William Thompson, an itinerant minister who came from New York City. Holland reports that “St. Charles AME Zion Church families can trace some of the family names” from the First AME Zion church in New York City.
Original members of St. Charles were also drawn from a community of free black settlers who lived in an area known as Skunk Hollow. Skunk Hollow encompassed land that includes the Palisades, Piermont, Sparkill and Closter.
St. Charles faces Ferdon Pond, where a black man named John Moore built and operated a mill in the early 1800s. According to historian Dr. Lori Martin, Moore also constructed mill wheels that were said to have produced blankets for soldiers fighting in the Civil War and were used widely throughout Rockland County. Moore’s daughter, Cynthia Hesdra, became a successful businesswoman in her own right, owning property in New York City and Nyack.
Hesdra was also rumored to have used her properties as stations in the Underground Railroad. Piermont Avenue between Hudson and Depew Avenue in Nyack is named for Hesdra, who owned a parcel of land near what is now Memorial Park.
Source: Nyack News and Views | Bill Batson