Historic Black Church Faces Possible Demolition

If you have ever visited Washington’s Headquarters, you might have passed the historic AME Zion Church on Washington Street right in front of the municipal parking lot. An article and video published in the Times Herald-Record on May 28, 2018, announced that the local congregation is considering tearing down the church, and the adjacent structure to take advantage of two empty side lots they have purchased to build 50 affordable apartments.

When examining this area contextually, there has been much loss of historic buildings. In the last decade alone, half of East Parmenter Street and other surrounding buildings have been demolished due to deterioration from neglect, and the municipal parking lot wasn’t always an empty space, it used to be a factory. It should also be of note, that just steps away at 135-137 Washington is a men’s shelter. The Clinton Hotel isn’t far behind from completely collapsing – all of this steps away from one of Newburgh’s richest assets, Washington’s Headquarters.

Orange County Historian, Johanna Yaun, wrote about the historical significance of the building in her newsletter:

In 2020 Newburgh will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s jubilee march along Washington Street. The leaders of the AME Zion Church used his appearance to mark the passing of the 15th Amendment, which granted voting rights to African American men. By 1870 the church had already become a symbol of liberty, nicknamed “the freedom church” thanks to its associations with the Underground Railroad.

Although the 1905 structure that stands now is not the modest house of worship built by the congregation’s founders, and not the same walls that reverberated the booming voice of Frederick Douglass from the pulpit that’s still used today, this building is a symbol of the grand strides of the African-American community in Newburgh as they passed on the flame of civil advocacy for centuries.

In an age when the American public is making an effort to remove monuments of oppression and contextualize historical symbols in our society, why are we not looking to preserve and elevate the symbols of the struggle for equality? This church would have been an incredible source of pride and progress at a time when “separate but equal” was the law of the land. As a monument, this building combats offensive cultural symbols from the past. It doesn’t put any one person on a pedestal, recognizing that true progress comes from the strength of the right to assembly. Also, it gets away from isolating one date or accomplishment, acknowledging that the struggle for equality has been sustained through generations.


Johanna Yaun
Orange County Historian

9 Comment

  • Expanding on Ms. Yaun’s reference to “separate but equal”, NYS Constitution…§3. “The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or PREFERENCE,…”. ‘Sounds self explanatory to me. The work around…https://www.nonprofitissues.com/to-the-point/difference-between-church-and-community-org
    Aside, it would be pathetic if Newburgh would swap its heritage for a “preference” of affordable housing. How far Bishop Varick’s church has fallen…
    Btw, is that the steep front steps referenced to in the last article?

    • Walt, Does not sound like a bad trade to me at all… less churches (claiming to help to community, but truly cannot due to lack of resources or whatever they’re 501 3 c has to do with it ) for more places to live, which will help with homelessness, stable housing leads to that hypothetical family being healthy and has everything to do with it. It changes newburgh, hopefully for the better.

      • According to church leaders, a replacement “streetside” church will be built. So, no, there will not be less churches. How will providing more places to live help with homelessness if the people cannot afford to reside there? At a recent work session The Newburgh Ministry explains why just warehousing people doesn’t work…https://newburghny.swagit.com/play/06082018-505 (item 10, the man has a real plan). Newburgh does not lack affordable housing as it has consistently managed to house a population comprised of 65% low income. Obviously the rent is being paid one way or the other. As per the ‘healthy family’, the ‘system’ perpetuates a broken parent structure, where in subsidies are awarded larger in the aggregate when the individuals are separated. Morally, the school system has become the proxy family and church, further sensitizing the issue.

  • Hmmm, maybe Newburgh’s 40+ newly tax foreclosed families can rent from this tax exempt in the future. See how that works? Manorialism…it’s what the progressives call “soft” gentrification.
    Adding to Ms. Yaun’s reference of “separate but equal”, NYS Constitution…§3. “The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or PREFERENCE,…”.
    One government’s urban renewal is one other’s affordable housing, only now the locals are inviting it. It’s brilliant actually, on par with the reverse segregation trend. How far Bishop Varick’s church has fallen…

  • For me, its shocking how many young people do not even understand the significance of having such a historical site in the city of newburgh and how it is connected to black history. (teary eyed emoji)

    • Free Doom, in one post you think it’s a good idea to trade a church of great historical significance for “affordable housing” and in another post you lament the lack of understanding of having such a historical site and how it is connected to black history (emphasized by teary eyed emojis). Crying crocodile tears?????

  • I am curious Peter, What do you think the space should be used for?

    • I think you ought to try answering the question first. Let me help. You correctly point out the historic significance of the church but then proceed to advocate for its replacement with “affordable housing”. There are roughly 28K people in Newburgh, 33% under the age of 18. There are 9K households. So roughly 17% of the city is in “affordable housing”. How much “affordable housing” do you think is necessary? 50%? 100%?
      As long as the city thinks “affordable housing” is the key to more development, particularly development of prime waterfront real estate then Newburgh goes nowhere. And judging by the acceptance of the recent proposal by some company starting with an “A” to combine development of the waterfront with MORE “affordable housing” then it appears that is the city’s position.
      This has got to be the only place in the world that takes prime real estate on the banks of a main river, in a historic city with historic neighborhoods and chooses to plop projects and “affordable housing” right in the midst of it while land sits idle next to 300. I am so done with this.

  • Or would you prefer it be demolished?