Historic Watertown Black Church Being Preserved


AME Zion Church by Richard MargolisBuilt in 1909, the Thomas Memorial AME Zion Church in the Black River community of Watertown is believed to be the first African American church in Jefferson County, NY.

The congregation, formed in 1878 and incorporated in 1880, worshiped in a private residence at River and Court streets until a bequest of $500 from Watertown resident Henry Gaines enabled them to build a new church.

Under the leadership of longtime member and Board president Frank Thomas, congregation members, many of whom were railroad workers, molded the concrete blocks and built the church themselves with funding assistance from local community organizations such as the YMCA.

The church was a place of refuge for the legacy of African Americans who served as abolitionists and who had connections to the Underground Railroad.

It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2002 in recognition of its significance in architecture, social history, and African American history, particularly its longstanding association with the African American community in Jefferson County.

A most recent achievement was the 2022-2023 selection as one of the “Seven to Save” sites which is an initiative managed by the Preservation League of New York State.

The church has been without an active congregation at least since about 2012. Its caretaker, William “Buster” Crabbe, passed away in 2017, leaving the care of the church in limbo.

A group of enthusiastic preservationists began meeting in the Fall of 2021 virtually to discuss and plan ways to advocate for the restoration of the church. Friends of Thomas Memorial’s work has now been rewarded with a Preserving Black Churches grant.

The church has received $100,000 in funding from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a program from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Friends of Thomas Memorial consists of historic preservation stewards from Preservation In Color, Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), Neighbors of Watertown, the Preservation League of New York State, People’s AME Zion
Church, Crawford & Stearns/Architects and Preservation Planners, PLLC, New York Landmarks Conservancy and Richard Margolis Art and Architectural Photography Studio.

With Adirondack Architectural Heritage acting as the grant’s fiscal sponsor, the funding is expected to support roof stabilization efforts at the church.

Since 2017, the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has raised more than $91 million in philanthropic funding, and serves as the largest U.S. resource dedicated to the preservation of African American historic places.

The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund works to elevate the stories and places of African American resilience, activism, and achievement. Learn more about their mission at their website.

The Thomas Memorial AME Zion Church is located at 715 Morrison Street in Watertown, New York.

Photo of the Watertown AME Zion Church by Richard Margolis, provided by the Preservation League of New York State.

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