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Saint Augustine's Church and the Slave Galleries

The Saint Augustine's Church at 290 Henry Street
Don Cruise

Saint Augustine's Church was formerly a chapel of the parish of Trinity Church (Wall Street) and is the outgrowth of two churches - All Saints' Church and Saint Augustine's Chapel. The present congregation is a mixture of people of every race and cultural background, most notable being the old Holy Cross Mission Chapel and Corpus Christi, each of which ended its existence several years ago. Its own website suggests that today Saint Augustine's houses the largest African American congregation of any denomination on the Lower East Side.

Perhaps the most interesting feature in Saint Augustine's are the two slave galleries at the rear of the balcony on each side of the tower. The congregation worships in the shadow of these two galleries: Haunting, box-like rooms above the balcony where African Americans were forced to sit. This rare artifact of racial segregation in New York stands as a stark, physical reminder of how and why boundaries of marginalization are drawn and contested.

The Slave Galleries Project launched in February 2000 at St. Augustine’s Church. The event revealed the power of this unique space to inspire dialogue about the most urgent issues facing our neighborhood. The Slave Galleries Project brought together more than thirty Community Preservationists – leaders representing African American, Asian, Latino, Jewish and other ethnic religious groups – with scholars and preservationists in a collaborative learning process. The project included restoration, interpretation, and civic dialogue in a highly integrated and mutually informative process. The need for a community forum was undeniable- we knew the “Slave Galleries” should be restored, preserved and used for this purpose.

The project conducted research along two lines. The genealogical to determine what we could about the founders of the church and who could have possibly sat in the “Slave Galleries,” and the architectural to learn what were the conditions like in the galleries. How were they used? What could the Galleries tell us about the early nineteenth Century attitudes toward this insidious form of segregation?

At this point the church's affiliation with The Lower East Side Tenement Museum has officially ended and the St. Augustine’s Slave Galleries Committee is forging ahead on its own. A Historical Research Report lays out all the known information about who sat in the galleries; who sat in the sanctuary; how other churches in the area practiced segregation and how African Americans resisted it.

Saint Augustine's members envision a small museum where the history and impact of African-Americans on New York's Lower Manhattan is remembered. They wish to show the progress that African-Americans have made in New York City and how their struggle expanded liberty and freedom for all New Yorkers.

Saint Augustine's Episcopal Church, 290 Henry Street, Church Office: 333 Madison Street, 212.673.5300, www.staugnyc.org


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