Monday, October 13, 2008

Two Centuries of Faith - Two Centuries in Manhattan

One of Manhattan's oldest and most respected African American institutions is on the verge of a very special milestone.

Historical Context

On November 10, 2008, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which is currently located on 138th Street near 7th Avenue in Upper Manhattan, will celebrate its 200th anniversary with a white tie gala. Abyssinian was founded in November 1808 by African Americans frustrated with the racial segregation they experienced at the baptist church they attended in lower Manhattan (Manhattan didn't have much population beyond lower Manhattan at that time). In 1808, Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, was nearing the end of his second term as President of the United States. It would be nearly 19 years later that slavery would be abolished in New York State and nearly 60 years before slavery was outlawed throughout the United States by the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution.

Though our nation was still very young, and though African Americans were more than 150 years away from obtaining legal equality with other Americans, a group of African Americans had the vision, determination, and courage to create the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and many generations of African Americans, as well as many persons from other ethnic groups, have participated in sustaining that institution over the past 200 years.

The Catalyst

Visitors from Ethiopia, one of the world's oldest Christian nations, attended church services in Manhattan at the First Baptist Church. When they encountered the racial segregation of the First Baptist Church, they left the church in protest, and many of the African Americans who had endured the racial segregation were inspired by the Ethiopian visitors and joined with them to found the Abyssinian Baptist Church. "Abyssinia" is the historical name of the Ethiopia, and the name "Abyssinian" was chosen for the church in recognition of the central role that Ethiopians played in creating the church and inspiring African Americans to create their own baptist institution in Manhattan.

Growth, Development, and Leadership

The church bought a building in Greenwich Village 1863 and worshiped there until the early part of the 20th Century, when the church moved to 40th Street as Manhattan's activities moved northward. Abyssinian's move to 40th Street corresponded with the opening of the first subway lines (elevated trains had been in use for many years). The improved mobility expanded Manhattan's business activity and created increased demand for residential properties well north of the City's heart in lower Manhattan. Showing insight into new center of African American life in Manhattan at the time, the church moved to Harlem, its current location, in 1923. It grew to be one of the largest protestant congregations in the United States in the 1930s.

In 1944, Abyssinian's 6th pastor, the legendary Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., became the first African American elected to Congress from the state of New York. He would become the Chairman of the House of Representatives' Education and Labor Committee, and he would leave office as the most legislatively potent member in the history of the Congress. He led the passage of more than 50 major bills, and he was responsible for the legislation that led to the desegregation of public schools and the military. He led the creation of the minimum wage, he was one of the key legislative architects of the Great Society antipoverty efforts.

Starting in 1972, the Reverend Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor led Abyssinian after continued the legacy of strong leadership at Abyssinian. He was the President of two universities; he received more than 50 honorary degrees; he mentored a large number of the leading ministers of today, and he earned the utmost respect from his peers who led churches around the country.

Since 1989, the current Pastor, the Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, was chosen to lead Abyssinian after 17 years at Abyssinian working under the leadership of Dr. Proctor. Dr. Butts focused the Harlem community on home ownership, community development, public education, care and housing for the elderly, and on the need to reject negative lyrics in modern music. Under his leadership, the church established the Abyssinian Development Corporation, which built housing for the homeless, housing for the elderly, established a public high school and a public elementary school, built the first public school building in Harlem in 50 years, established a Head Start program, and led the creation of many hundreds of units of affordable housing. Reverend Butts also led a campaign to eliminate negative billboard advertising in Harlem. Reverend Butts is a university president, president of the NYC Council of Churches, and the leader who captured the nation's sense of outrage, courage, and determination when he spoke at Yankee Stadium in the days following the 9/11 attacks.

The Celebration

The 200th anniversary celebration started in September 2007 with a trip to Ethiopia for church members, and it continued with performances at Jazz at Lincoln Center (and at the church itself) of a composition by Wynton Marsalis, a theme song written and performed by Ashford and Simpson, a black tie gala, the upcoming November 2008 white tie gala, and many other events and activities.

Two hundred years is an achievement worthy of a celebration, and Abyssinian planned for years for the more than year-long celebration of its 200 years as a beacon of hope and symbol of African American empowerment. At Manhattan Viewpoint, we pray for many hundreds of years of continued leadership in Manhattan by the Abyssinian Baptist Church.

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