This is my 5th post on the history of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina, an organization made up of black North Carolinians who moved to New York and other northern cities in the century after the Civil War.
On January 12, 1934, the New York City chapter of the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina held an Emancipation Day celebration at Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem, one of the most historic churches in America.
Founded in 1796, “Mother Zion” was home to many important chapters in the history of the African American freedom struggle. Long known as the “Freedom Church,” Mother Zion had played especially important roles in the Underground Railroad and in the country’s anti-slavery movement.
On that winter night in Harlem, African American men and women who had migrated to New York City from North Carolina traveled to Mother Zion to mark the 70th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
That night the crowd at Mother Zion may also have been remembering the 1807 Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 1808 and banned the African Slave Trade to the U.S.
Music, prayer and oratory filled the night, according to the New York Age (12 Jan. 1934), New York City’s leading black newspaper. One of Harlem’s rising choral stars, an African American composer/arranger named Hall Johnson, led a choir of 100 voices singing spirituals and gospel music.
Mother Zion’s pastor, the Rev. James W. Brown, also spoke that night, as did several of New York City’s other African American leaders.
A guest from out of town, Gough McDaniels, also spoke that evening. McDaniels was from Baltimore, where he was a highly respected teacher at Frederick Douglass High School.
(He is best remembered today for the success of one of his students, Thurgood Marshall, who always considered McDaniels one of his most important mentors from his school days.)
McDaniels was an outspoken and deeply committed civil rights and labor activist. During the 1930s, he fought for justice for the “Scottsboro Boys,” supported interracial labor organizing and led anti-lynching protests.
There had to be something special about holding the Sons and Daughters of North Carolina’s Emancipation Day celebration at Mother Zion.
Mother Zion, the birthplace of AME Zionism, had been the spiritual home for some of the country’s most important anti-slavery activists. Sojourner Truth was a member of Mother Zion. When he was a fugitive slave, Frederick Douglass was sheltered there. Harriet Tubman and Abraham Galloway spoke there.
Even Freedom’s Journal, the first black newspaper in the U.S., was published in Mother Zion’s basement in 1827-28.
The church’s anti-slavery activism did not come without a cost. A century before the Emancipation Day event, white pro-slavery mobs smashed the church’s windows during New York City’s Anti-Abolition Riots of 1834.
Mother Zion also had deep historic ties to the North Carolina coast, dating back at least to the days of Bishop Christopher Rush, who had been born into slavery in Craven County, N.C., in 1777.
After coming to New York City ca. 1798, Rush joined Mother Zion in 1803. He was commissioned to preach in 1815, and he became AME Zionism’s second bishop in 1828. He would go on to become one of AME Zion’s most important leaders in the first half of the 19th century.
(By the way, the circumstances of Rush’s arrival in New York City are not clear. He may have been a fugitive slave when he left Craven County or he may have been manumitted and come north as a free man.)
Rush never forgot his roots. Throughout his life, he made sure that his black brothers and sisters from North Carolina found shelter and help in starting a new life at Mother Zion and, as the church spread, at other AME Zion churches in the north.
That bond between Mother Zion and New Bern’s African American community grew even stronger during the Civil War.
In 1864, possibly at Bishop Rush’s behest, the New England Conference of the AME Zion Church sent the Rev. James W. Hood as a missionary to New Bern, the seat of Craven County. At that time, the Union army occupied the seaport and thousands of liberated slaves were making a home there.
Through Hood’s efforts, AME Zionism spread on the North Carolina coast before it did anywhere else in the American South. Andrew’s Chapel in New Bern (later re-named St. Peter AME Zion Church) came to be known as AME Zion’s “Mother Church” in the South.
In a way, Mother Zion and St. Peter’s, one in New York City, the other 500 miles south, became AME Zion’s two poles, bound together by family and faith, heritage and struggle. Between them lay a path that black North Carolinians would travel many, many times.
-To be continued-