A safe abode: St. David’s AME Zion Church in Sag Harbor

  • March 26, 2020
A safe abode: St. David’s AME Zion Church in Sag Harbor

By Vaidik Trivedi
Fall 2019 JRN 364

Stony Brook student Viadik Trivedi (center) explores an old cemetery looking for the remains of enslaved people with two other journalism students.

Deborah Galloway, 64, clapped her hands and stomped her feet in synchrony to the drum beats while swaying her body to notes of ‘Good Good Father,’ with her fellow Sunday-church attenders in St. David’s AME Zion Church in Sag Harbor.

Ten people and four kids sung in harmony, taking the lead from Rev. Michael J. Jackson, who has been serving the as the pastor to the 179-year-old church for more than a decade.

“It’s the same people who come every Sunday,” Debra Galloway, 64, said. “I came to this town from Brooklyn when I was 5 years old and have been coming to the church ever-since.”

Galloway cherishes the memories of her first visit to the church with her parents.

“I loved the talks, the respect people showed to each other and especially when everyone started singing, it is something you feel inside,” Galloway recalls. “My mother is 86, but every time she visits me, we come to this church together.”

Although the brick and mortar of the colonial architectural era has many untold stories, but it’s the people and atmosphere inside these walls that brings back Galloway here every Sunday for the past five decades.

“It is a place for family, respect, a sense of community,” Galloway said. “Which is hard to come by.”

The St. David African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in the historic Eastville neighborhood of Sag Harbor has stood the test of time, working as a religious and cultural hub since 1840. Galloway is one of the few residents of Sag Harbor, who has an emotional connection with the church.

“The church was established by enslaved African Americans and Native Americans or the Shinnecock people,” Georgetta Grier-Keys, Executive Director and Chief Curator of Eastville Community Historical Society said. “They came together to create a place of worship together after being segregated by the European settlers.”

The church not only became a place of worship but is also rumored to harbor an underground railroad used by enslaved African Americans to run from their captors. Many historians argue that existence of such ‘underground railroad’ is misleading and far-fetched.

“The trap door behind the communion table leads to a tunnel which opens underneath the house next door,” Rev. Jackson said. “Enslaved African Americans used to hide here and were helped in eluding their captors by hiding them in ships and sending them to Canada.”

Established in 1789, Sag Harbor was a major port for the whaling industry. The Second Session of Congress of 1789, declared Sag Harbor to be the first official port of entry for the United States.

“Sag Harbor was a booming city in its primitive stages which was established by European colonizers and Native Americans,” Richard Doctrow, Curator of Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum said. “At its peak in 1845, the city of Sag Harbor was one of the biggest employers on Long Island,” Doctrow, said.

People migrated here during the whaling rush in large numbers. By 1845, there were more than 64 whale hunting ships docked in Sag Harbor, which travelled globally, Doctrow said.

Pyrrhus Concer, who was born into slavery but went on to earn his freedom, became a whaler and travelled to Japan, becoming the first African to set foot on Japanese soil, Keys said.

“He used to work for whaling ships in Sag Harbor and travelled to Japan with them on a hunting trip,” Simmons said. “He went on to become a local legend and a philanthropist who was well respected by the entire community.”

After New York made it unlawful for citizens to own slaves in 1827, many freed African Americans like Concer, moved closer to Sag Harbor in search of employment on ships as sailors or whale hunters, Brenda Simmons, Director and Curator of Southampton African American Museum said. African Americans, Native Americans and European settlers mingled well when the whaling industry was on the boom, Simmons added.

I come here to pray to our ancestors and thank them for all their struggles and hardships. I feel closer to my ancestry whenever I visit the church and this cemetery.

Debra Galloway, Zion AME parishioner

“It was their shared occupation that helped them coexist,” Simmons said. “Most of the men were whalers and merchants, meaning they’d be stuck on ships for months at a time.”

The village didn’t elude racism though. Although freed African Americans and Native Americans were co-existing with European settlers in the village, their integration into the society was restricted.

“The white settlers didn’t like it one bit that freed African Americans were living right next door to them as their neighbors,” Simmons said. “So, they segregated them towards Eastville of Sag Harbor, away from the port, just like Native Americans.”

Massapequa, Hauppauge and Ronkonkoma used to be Native American tribe lands long before the European settlers forced them off their lands.

Despite being free under the eyes of the law, African Americans and Native Americans were restricted in social integration by the white European settlers.

“They were restricted to the balcony of the First Presbyterian on Main St., were unwelcomed or frowned upon in social gatherings and lived a pretty secluded life away from the city,” Tom Edmunds, Director of Southampton Historical Society said. “African Americans helped build the initial structures of that (First Presbyterian) church in 1707 but were unwelcome there.”

Despite making slavery unlawful, African Americans found themselves alienated from their own cities, just what Native Americans felt for their land. In 1839, the two communities came together and decided to build a church of their own to practice religion without boundaries.

“We need to understand that building a church was not just about building a church at that time,” Simmons said. “They (the founders) were bold and the church not only became a place of worship but also became a cultural hub for the two communities.”

In its humble days, the AME Zion church was a plain frame building with 16 members. As whaling grew, so did the Eastville community. By 1843, there were 83 members in the church and a Sunday School providing religious teachings to Eastville’s youth.

In the Media:
A version of this story aired on WSHU, the Long Island National Public Radio affiliate station.
It also appeared in Newsday, Long Island’s only daily newspaper.

That Sunday School still runs to this date, teaching the ‘words of God,’ to youngsters like Naomi Omabhude, 8, and Joshua Omabhude, 6, according to Rev. Jackson.

“People come here with their kids and we teach them how to read the bible and the meaning of words written in it,” Rev. Jackson said. “Usually people don’t understand what the Lord is saying to us and these meeting help us get the message through to young people.”

Elijah Jackson, 18, who is currently in his senior year at Pierson High School, Sag Harbor has been attending these Sunday schools since he was a kid.

“These Sunday morning readings help us understand the true meaning of bible and is a good way of getting together with our community,” Jackson said. “At times we even have food drives where we collect food for homeless people, and we have fun activities during the summer like music lessons for kids.”

Jackson plans on attending the Manhattan School of Music to fulfill his dream of becoming a musician.

“I started playing the drums in this church,” Jackson said. “It is one of the many things this church has taught me.”

Mona Omabhude, who works as a chef in the state of Georgia and has been living there for the past five years but makes it a point to visit the church whenever she is in town. She claims that despite distance, she has always kept a touch with the church because all of her friends and family have been going to the church for years.

“I grew up in this neighborhood and have been attending this church for more than 25 years – on and off,” Mona Omabhude, mother of the Naomi and Joshua who attended the Sunday school said. “My mother brought me here and whenever I am in town, I try to visit the church with my children.”

After the Sunday prayers, Galloway walks up the road in front of the church towards an historic cemetery nearby.

“I come here to pray to our ancestors and thank them for all their struggles and hardships,” Galloway said. “I feel closer to my ancestry whenever I visit the church and this cemetery.”

On 7th Feb 1857, David Hempstead, the founder and trustee of AME Zion Church in Sag Harbor bought a piece of land near the church for a sum of $50 with stated purpose of “exclusively used as burial ground for the members and congregation of the church…” Prior to the opening of the burial ground, African Americans were buried in segregated areas of the village community church.

“This place gave people a means to connect with other oppressed people and served as a cultural hub where African Americans and Shinnecock people shared their traditions and values,” Keys said. “The church and the burial ground gave a backbone to these communities and brought them closer.”

Hempstead who used to own the house next to the church, which is connect by an ‘underground railroad,’ gave up all his possessions to the church after his death including his own house.

Viadik Trivedi

“Hempstead brought Native Americans and African Americans under one roof,” Keys said. “His contribution in the integration of the segregated class at that time is unfathomable.”

To this date, residents and St. David’s AME Zion Church attenders regard the church as one of the most important African American historic landmarks in the region.

The church that has been serving as a hub for ‘the white man’s’ outcast for centuries tells hundreds of stories through its wood paned walls. The story of slavery, segregation, religion and most importantly, bringing people of different backgrounds together, just like me and all the Sunday church attendees.

Editor’s Note:
This is a corrected, updated version of the original story that appeared in Newsday on August 16, 2020.