St. James AME Zion Church

116 Cleveland Ave, Ithaca, NY

Photo by renatoppl / CC BY


Built in 1836, St. James AME Zion is believed to be the oldest church in Ithaca and one of the first of the AME Zion churches in the country. An Underground Railroad station, the church is located in a community that was an important transfer point for fugitive slaves en route to Canada. Many of these slaves, impressed by the support of the local community, decided to stay in Ithaca and constructed homes in the area surrounding St. James. The congregation officially expressed its antislavery sentiments through the writings and preaching of its pastors such as Thomas James who was known to have provided assistance to fugitive slaves. Famous leaders in the Underground Railroad are associated with St. James. Harriet Tubman, who played an active role in AME Zion church affairs in central and west New York, often visited St. James and Frederick Douglass is documented as visiting the church in 1852.

St. James AME Zion Church continued to be a focal point in the black community of Ithaca into the 20th century. In 1906, in the basement of St. James, seven African American Cornell University students, frustrated by the discriminatory all-white fraternities, formed Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation's oldest official black fraternity. Today, St. James plays an active role in the community as a religious and social center of the southside section of the city.



National Park Service

Updated June 7, 2017

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