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.
Orange County Historian