Black History Month: Changes at church founded by slaveholders
A historic Long Island church that was founded by slaveholders more than three centuries ago today serves a predominantly black congregation.
St. George's Episcopal Church in Hempstead opened its doors in 1704, when local residents were mostly farmers. Many used slave labor to work their land. Wealthy, land-owning parishioners rented pews on the first floor of the church, while the first African-Americans to attend the church were slaves who likely sat up on the second floor.
Charles Egleston, historiographer for the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, says many of the early church members were affluent. Among its notable members is Thomas Jones, the namesake for Jones Beach. Outside of the church are the graves of the Hewlett family, who founded the Five Towns hamlet.
As decades passed and times changed, African-Americans were eventually granted full membership to the church. But racial tensions persisted into the Civil Rights era.
Beverly James first attended the historic church as a college student in the 1960s. At the time, the congregation was mostly white.
"When I first came to St. Georges I was not welcome here," she recalls. "It was just very cold, no one spoke to me. When I sat in a pew one woman in particular drew herself to herself and I recognized that was not where I wanted to be."
James didn't think she'd ever return. But she moved to Long Island permanently in the '80s, and by then, as a result of "white flight" in the surrounding area, the congregation had significant African-American membership.
Today the church is predominately black, with most congregants hailing from Caribbean nations.
The church's priest, Rev. Frederic Miller, says members are reflecting on their past, but are more concerned with moving forward.
James remains active at the church, which she says is still working toward racial reconciliation.
"We've been here 316 years, and we've got a lot of work to do to keep it going," she says.