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Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

140-146 West 137th Street

Established in 1796

Moved to Harlem in 1914

“Mother AME Zion was known as the Freedom Church for being on of the earliest and most vocal opponents of slavery and a constant champion of its abolition.”

– The Reverend Alvin T. Durant

Founded by African-American slaves and freemen who withdrew from the racially segregated John Street Methodist Episcopal Church, Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was established in 1796 in reaction to African Americans being denied the full privileges of church membership, forced into separate seating in the balcony, and restricted to participate in the Holy Communion and prayer only after the white parishioners were finished. 

Initially known as the African Chapel, it officially became the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (Mother AME Zion) in 1848. Its founding members worshipped in a stable located in today’s City Hall area until their first building named Zion was erected in 1800 on the corner of Church and Leonard Streets. In 1821 the church members elected James Varick, the leader of the original dissenters, as their first bishop. 

On its journey northward, Mother AME Zion migrated to the corner of West 10th Street and Bleeker Street and later to West 89th Street before arriving in Harlem. Under the leadership of Rev. Dr. John W. Brown, the church acquired property in the area and became one of the preeminent religious institutions in Harlem. In 1914 Mother AME Zion purchased and relocated to the Church of Redeemer on 136th Street. In 1925 the congregation moved to the present edifice on 137th Street, designed by black architect George W. Foster. One of its noted pastors was Rev. B. C. Robeson, the brother of actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson. Rev. Robeson, who was pastor of the church for 27 years, said one of the greatest events during his tenure was the burning of the church mortgage in 1946.

Mother AME Zion has played an important role in the lives of African Americans in New York and throughout the country. It spurred the growth and development of African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the third largest Methodist organization in the United States, which currently has 1.3 million members and about 3,100 separate congregations. Mother AME Zion was known as the Freedom Church for being one of the earliest and most vocal opponents of slavery and a constant champion of its abolition. The church had among its members notable abolitionists Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, and it was active as a station in the Underground Railroad that sheltered runaway slaves. Throughout the twentieth century, the church continued to practice a liberation theology, participating in civil rights protests and providing for the sick and needy. Today led by Rev. Alvin T. Durant, Mother AME Zion carries on the tradition of political and social activism and the ongoing struggle for human rights and justice for all people.

“Ours is a legacy that is difficult to surpass, and yet the challenges of this present age are ever present. We continue the struggle, committing ourselves to liberation and free expression as we seek to transform our community and the world through ministry and service for the Kingdom of God.”, said Rev. Alvin T. Durant.

Adapted from information provided by Rev. Alvin T. Durant and additional historical resources.

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