St Augustine’s Episcopal Church

Art & Culture | History

A Testament to over 190 Years of African-American History on the Lower East Side

St Augustines Episcopal Church Lower East Side

About St Augustine’s Episcopal Church

 & why it made the Carpe City list

  • Today St. Augustine’s is home to the LES’s largest African-American congregation
  • But when the church was built in 1824, it had Slave Galleries, two small rooms behind the balcony where black worshipers were forced to sit, separated from the white congregation below.
  • The non-profit Saint Augustine’s Project preserves the Galleries in order to acknowledge the legacy of slavery and honor the 19th century black New Yorkers who worshiped there.
  • While the building was designed in 1824, it wasn’t consecrated until 1828. In between was a landmark date, July 4, 1827, the day slavery was abolished in New York State.
  • Even after 1827, black parishioners were still relegated to the Slave Galleries. Not only that, some black congregants were still enslaved, because slavery was still legal in New Jersey, where some of the church’s white congregants owned factories.
  • But, black congregants asserted their own freedom within the church:
    • The church’s vestry minutes reveal that a free black couple, Henry and Phoebe Nichols, were baptized there on July 5, 1829, in honor of the second anniversary of emancipation in New York.
  • By the mid 19th Century, New York’s growing black community built its own houses of worship, and moved away from the church.
  • The church was originally called All Saints’ Free Church.  The term “Free” having nothing to do with the freed slaves, but with the fact that they did not charge rental fees for their pews which many churches did at the time.
  • In the 1940s, All Saints merged with a church on Houston Street called St. Augustine’s, and the new parish decided to use the All Saint’s building and call it St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church.
  • At the time, African American and Hispanic families were moving into the neighborhood. Soon, Saint Augustine’s had the largest African American congregation on the Lower East Side.
  • By the 1990s, church leaders were concerned that gentrification was pushing African Americans out of the neighborhood.
    • The situation inspired the congregation to partner with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to uncover and preserve the history of the church’s Slave Galleries “as a testament to African American struggles and contributions to the quality of life in Manhattan and beyond.”
  • Today, The Saint Augustine’s Project welcomes visitors to the church and the Galleries.

Carpe City Trivia

Did you know that New York City was known as the capitol of Free Black America?

  • After slavery was abolished in New York State, New York City replaced Philadelphia as the capital of free black America.
  • By the 1840s, the free black community was over 16,000 strong, and thriving in Lower Manhattan.
  • Notable residents included Thomas Downing, who ran the most famous oyster house in New York at 5 Broad Street, and Dr. James McCune Smith, the nation’s first licensed African American doctor, who opened a pharmacy at 93 West Broadway in 1837.
  • Black New Yorkers also congregated in the Lower East Side’s Five Points, establishing community organizations like the African Society of Mutual Relief at 42 Baxter Street, and pioneering new forms of culture:
    • Competitions between Irish and black musicians and dancers in the Five Points led to a new style known as … tap dance.

By: Lucie Levine
Photography by:

Christi Scofield

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