Preserving African American Historic Sites in Ithaca
In October 1913, Ithaca’s St. James A.M.E. Zion Church celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Over two weeks of commemorations, visiting ministers preached sermons to “record congregations” at the Southside church, according to an article in the Ithaca Journal. At an evening banquet, attorney Thomas W. Burns told the history of African Americans in Ithaca and the seventeen men who founded the church in 1833. At the same time the church rededicated its 80-year-old Wheat Street (now Cleveland Avenue) structure after completing $3500 worth of repairs.
That 1913 investment was only one of the many efforts that the St. James congregation has made to preserve the oldest surviving church in Ithaca. For almost two centuries it has been a cornerstone of the local African American community, a space for spiritual solace and social support. It served as a “station” on the Underground Railroad during the nineteenth century and hosted Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. During the Civil War more than two dozen Tompkins County men enlisted at the church and fought in the 26th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry. St. James is part of the national African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, known as the “Freedom Church” that helped galvanize the civil rights movement.
The St. James community’s preservation work was recognized when the site was designated a local landmark in 1975 and put on the state and National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
St. James is one of only two sites related to African American history officially landmarked in Ithaca. The other is the Dennis-Newton House on North Albany Street, where Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s first African American fraternity, was founded. The national Alpha Phi Alpha organization reached out to Historic Ithaca to help save the condemned building as part of their effort to commemorate and preserve the fraternity’s early history. Preservation Services Coordinator Christine O’Malley researched and submitted documentation for the home’s historic significance. The City of Ithaca designated it a local landmark in 2015, and it was listed on the state and national registers the following year.
The dearth of African American landmarks locally tracks with national numbers. A paltry two percent of sites on the National Register of Historic Places preserve the histories of African Americans. Shockingly, African Americans make up less than one percent of historic preservation professionals.
Brent Leggs, director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, aims to steer funding to improve those stats. “Our aspiration is to ensure that all Americans see themselves and their history and their potential in the African American historic places that surround them,” he noted in a talk on NPR’s Creative Mornings show. “We believe we have a responsibility to elevate the full contributions of African Americans to our nation . . . by preserving sites of activism, achievement, architecture, community, and beyond.” (See Casey Cep’s New Yorker article, “The Fight to Preserve African-American History,” for a review of the persistent, creative ways that Leggs and other preservationists have fought to ensure that important sites endure.)
And indeed, even without formal recognition, local community groups and institutions are preserving the kinds of spaces that Leggs mentioned. The Southside Community Center on South Plain Street, rebuilt in 1938 after the flood of 1935 damaged an earlier building, thrives as a community meeting place that offers enrichment opportunities to young people, including a Black Girl Magic program that empowers young women. The Calvary Baptist Church, organized in 1857, moved to its current site on North Albany Street in 1917 to minister to Ithaca’s Northside African American community. Cornell’s Africana Studies and Research Center on North Campus preserves the story of local opposition to and resulting activism for civil rights. (To view other sites that celebrate the resilience of African Americans in Ithaca, take the self-guided PocketSights walking tour of the Southside.)
These important sites persist as vital community spaces because they have evolved to meet the changing needs of the groups they serve. But that survival is often tenuous, and there is a real need for greater local and national support that acknowledges that these sites help tell the full, inclusive story of the American experience. In practical terms, that assistance entails monetary support and technical assistance for navigating the historic preservation bureaucracy. (See also the National Trust’s guide, Preserving African American Historic Places for useful strategies and case studies.) For example, Historic Ithaca has worked with St. James to clarify the processes related to maintaining the historic structure and funding improvements. Currently St. James is partnering with students of Cornell Professor of Africana and Romance Studies Gerard Aching to research the church’s role in the Underground Railroad and to seek grants for its continued preservation.