New York City’s oldest black congregation, Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, was founded in 1796 by a group of about 100 worshippers who had been part of the mostly white John Street Methodist Church. In 1800, they built their first church building at the corner of Leonard and Church Streets in present-day Tribeca, where they remained until 1864. Here the congregation thrived, growing to over 750 members by 1821 when they separated from the white Methodist Episcopal Church denomination and formed a separate conference of AME Zion churches that spread throughout the United States and Canada and became known for religious and social activism. Today there are more than 1.2 million members of the AME Zion denomination that began with the Mother Zion congregation.
In 1807 a commissioner of health informed the city inspector that the AME Zion Church at Leonard Street “has no burying ground, but inter all their dead in a vault under the church. Since the first commencement of this practice [of burying their dead in the vault under the church] full five years have elapsed and I believe it will be nearly correct to state that, at an average, One hundred and fifty persons have been interred there annually since that period: hence there are now in that vault not less than seven hundred fifty dead bodies.” Fearing health risks, the Common Council prohibited further interments in the vault, and granted the church a section of the public burial ground located at today’s Washington Square Park. In 1864, Mother Zion sold its church property at Leonard Street for $90,000 and removed the bodies that had been interred there to grounds at Cypress Hills Cemetery. Mother AME Zion Church is now located on 137th Street in Harlem and a 60-story skyscraper, 56 Leonard Street, is on the site of Mother Zion’s first church and burial ground.
Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 4: 522-523, 525; “To Whom It May Concern [Notice],” New-York Daily Tribune Apr 21, 1864, 2; The Cypress Hills Cemetery, 1863 catalog & list of lot holders]; Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1993); African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (Britannica.com); Cypress Hills Cemetery Map, May 2014; OpenStreetMap