On a Sunday morning, open the red door to Barry Avenue AME Zion Church, on North Barry Street on the Mamaroneck and Rye Neck border, and the singing—backed by piano, drums, tambourine, and clapping—warms the air. You could very well be entering past and future beyond the 1903 marker indicating when the church was built.
The call to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Jan. 17th is particularly fitting from this church that counts among its founders Robert Purdy, a runaway slave from Louisiana who came to Scarsdale via underground railroad. Many of Purdy’s descendents continue to attend and support the church.
“This is the first African-American house of worship in the Village of Mamaroneck, and one of the oldest in Westchester County,” said Gloria Poccia Pritts, Historian for VOM.
The pastor is Reverend Annie Kersey, who has been with the congregation for three years. She lives in the upper Bronx and is a native of Mount Vernon.
Robert Purdy and his wife Lena had four daughters. There are no records of how Purdy was able to purchase property, but he did so on Saxon Wood Road in Scarsdale. Prayer services were held at the Purdy home, and on Cedar Street, off Jefferson Avenue in Mamaroneck at the home of Sister Dinah Hicks. Land was purchased at the corner of River and Grove Streets in Mamaroneck to build a small mission.
Writes Pritts, “The family members traveled from Rosedale, in Scarsdale, by trolley or buggy to Mamaroneck to worship. Sometimes they would walk.”
In 1852, the Barry Avenue AME Zion Church was organized by Purdy.
To accommodate a growing congregation, in 1903 the present church was erected at the corner of North Barry and Grove. The first pastor was Reverend George Tredwell. The building has a simple frame, a tall steeple, and 12 stained-glass windows representing the 12 tribes of Israel.
AME Zion origins
AME Zion stand stands for African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. It was officially founded in 1821 but is said to have begun in 1796 in New York City by black church members who left Manhattan’s John Street Methodist Episcopal Church in response to second class treatment.
African-Americans were restricted to back pews marked “B.M.” for black members. They were last in line for baptism and Holy Communion and could not hold leadership positions.
Meetings were held first at a cabinetmaker’s shop, then in a rented house on Cross Street between Mulberry and Orange streets. The first AME Zion churches were built in 1800 when ties to the Methodist Episcopal Church were officially severed. The first “superintendent” was James Varick, ordained in 1822. Today the church is reported to have over 1.4 million members.
According to a 1990 Gannett Newspaper article, some of the greatest abolitionist leaders, such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman came out of the AME Zion Church.
Emeline Allen Powell
“I first became fully aware of the church when Mrs. Emeline Allen Powell visited our Mamaroneck Historical Society meetings,” said Pritts recently. “She was in her nineties.”
Mrs. Powell was born November 16, 1901, and died May 10, 1998. Powell’s great-grandfather was Robert Purdy. She was born on Saxon Wood Road in Scarsdale. At the age of thirteen, her mother, Elena Johnson Allen, had become the church’s first organist, instilling in Powell a love for singing. This love kept Powell in the choir even when she was up in age, according to today’s parishioners, her nephew David Vaughn and a church trustee.
“Emeline was my mother’s sister,” said Vaughn on Sunday. He is Purdy’s great-great grandson.
Also in the congregation was William Peterson, 93, who has been attending for ninety years. Purdy was his great-grandfather. “Coming here is like coming home,” said the Elmsford resident, nodding at all his relatives as they arrived.
There were thirty parishioners on Sunday, with Reverend Kersey citing 51 active members. “It’s mostly elderly constituents,” she said of the dwindling numbers many organized religions are experiencing.
However, sitting in on drums was young Timmy Giddon who was being persuaded to come every Sunday. In the back of the church was a young woman checking out the service. If the sincerity, history, and energy of the church is any indication, new members should be joyfully on their way.
Pritts recalls that Powell handed her handwritten notes about her memories in Mamaroneck and the church. Included were “slave songs” she remembered being sung when she was a child. The lyrics to one went as follows:
“I’m a Rollin, I’m a rolln,
I’m a Rollin, through an un-friendly worl,
I’m a rollin-in, I’m a roll-in,
I’m a roll-in, through an un-friendly worl. [sic]”
When Powell gave one of her talks at a MHS meeting, she said, “This being the fifth and last reading I will start with a Spiritual that was sung by my ancestors in Zion Church.
“Tell me how did you feel when you come out of the wilderness leaning on the Lord.
I am leaning on the Lord, Who died at Calvary.
I felt like Praying when, I come out the
Wilderness, leaning on the Lord.
I felt like Singing when, I come out the
Wilderness leaning on the Lord.”
Barry Avenue AME Zion Church, 645 North Barry Avenue, Mamaroneck; (914) 698-3681; email@example.com. Sunday School, 10 a.m. Sunday Worship, 11 a.m. Wednesday 6:30 p.m. prayer service; 7:30 p.m. bible study. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 6 a.m. telephone conference call bible study
Katherine Ann Samon is the author of four books, including Ranch House Style, and is on the board of the Larchmont Historical Society. Her column, “Historical Wonders,” about important people, events, and buildings in Larchmont and Mamaroneck, appears twice a month on Larchmont-Mamaroneck Patch. To learn more about the author, visit her Web site.