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At the corner of Lafayette Avenue and South Oxford Street stands a bastion of hope and liberty. The Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church has long been the open eye keeping watch over a changing neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. Indeed, Fort Greene is a societal history book, one whose prologue begins before our country was born — and one whose epilogue will never be written. That’s because Fort Greene will continue to transform for the rest of time; that’s because Fort Greene will, as it has throughout history, experience its ups and downs, like it did when controversial Rev. Theodore Ledyard Cuyler moved there when he accepted the call to be the first pastor of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church.
The role of the community church has been that of the great intellectual, spiritual and charitable meeting place throughout American history. This is especially true in the annals of African-American history when chronicling the diaspora before, during and after the Civil War. And this is where we begin our story of the church on the corner of Lafayette Avenue and South Oxford Street in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, USA.
The church, designed and constructed in the Romanesque Revival style, was completed in 1862, just as fighting escalated in the Civil War, casting doubt on whether there’d even be a Union. Later that year, the fighting intensified again, and Rev. Cuyler made a bold public move: He joined other prominent ministers and urged President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. So began the legacy of Rev. Cuyler as a freedom fighter, and so began the history of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church as a haven for people of all races — and all genders — at a time when the country was not as tolerant.
Fort Greene saw aggressive growth at the conclusion of the Civil War. Rev. Cuyler and his church received former slaves from the Old South, and along with the present congregation, he formed one of the most multicultural/multiracial churches in the United States of America. Less than a decade after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederacy at the house of Wilmer McLean, Rev. Cuyler was making another bold move: He invited Sarah Smiley, a Quaker evangelist, to deliver a sermon to his congregation. Such activity was absolutely inconceivable in 1872, and the Presbytery of Brooklyn leveled charges of hosting a “promiscuous assemblage” on the reverend, which he beat. He then became a champion of women’s rights. In a churchwide movement, Rev. Cuyler vocally called for the ordination of women as ministers — something that did not happen until 1951.
“And our church has been representing the underrepresented ever since,” says Edward Moran, a Brooklyn-based writer and filmmaker who’s also the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church’s unofficial archivist. “Our church was one of the first churches in the country to openly advocate for lesbian and gay ordination” (beginning in the 1970s).
Moran joined the church about 30 years ago, and he’s uncovered a rich history that’s as diverse as the community the church is in. From when former slave Amanda Smith was invited to speak there in 1879 to when Liyana, a band of disabled musicians from war-torn Zimbabwe performed there 130 years later, Moran says that a history of struggle and adversity and triumph is embodied in the church on the corner of Lafayette Avenue and South Oxford Street. “It’s the Town Hall of Fort Greene,” he says, “and a meeting place for people throughout the city.”
This issue of American Way is a celebration of achievements as we begin Black History Month. It’s a tradition we started with the Feb. 1, 2009, issue of AW, and it’s a tradition we hope will never have an epilogue, much like Fort Greene, Brooklyn. This issue features Al Roker (page 44), one of the most lovable people on television, who grew up in St. Albans, Queens, only a dozen miles from the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church. Reading about the ups and downs in his life will make you appreciate even more that smiling face — come rain or shine — on Today. We also track the migration of Zydeco, a swamp-born creole music that’s made its way out west (page 50). Turn to page 86 for the details of a proud, history-rich all-African-American Texas town, and read about American Airlines’ involvement in various African-American communities on page 67.
The Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church has seen its numbers rise and fall over the years. Of the roughly 400 congregants they have now, some two-thirds are African-American. And 150 years after the first stone was laid, the church remains committed to the same community that has ebbed and flowed around it. “This church has always had a reputation of championing social justice,” Moran says. “This church was always connected with activism, and it always will be.”