By Amelia A. Montgomery
NEW YORK, NY – On Sunday, June 16, 2019, at the 190th New York Annual Conference, the Right Reverend Dennis V. Proctor appointed the awesome pastorate task to lead the congregation of Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church to the Reverend Malcolm J. Byrd as Senior Pastor.
Accordingly, the year 2019 is the 223rd Anniversary of the organized Mother A.M.E. Zion Church – The Church of Black Liberation. As recorded in our historic chronicles, the growth and development of Mother Zion is a story of religious freedom and of social and historic implications. We are not only the ‘Mother’ of the A.M.E. Zion Church denomination, we are also [in American history] the first African-American organization in the City, County, and State of New York; thanks to a handful of courageous Black freedom fighters (free and enslaved), who walked out of John Street Methodist Episcopal Church in lower Manhattan – a predominantly “white” congregation – to establish a “black” church called ‘Zion.’ Among these primary Zion liberators was James L. Varick.
In addition, Mother Zion was an important station along the route of the “Underground Railroad” – led by Harriet Tubman, the conductor and abolitionist – hiding slaves behind the pulpit that led to a secret passageway of escape that was situated in one of its earlier church locations. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who also escaped slavery from Cordova, Maryland, was hidden in the basement of Mother Zion. He became a local preacher; and, in 1838, married his first wife, Anna Murray, in the downtown location of Mother Zion Church. On June 1, 1843 Isabella (Belle) Baumfree (abolitionist, evangelist and women’s rights activist), known for her infamous speech “Ain’t I a Woman” delivered at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, changed her name from Isabella to Sojourner Truth at the altar of Mother Zion.
Among many notable members of Mother Zion Church were Julia Foote (first female ordained Deacon in the A.M.E. Zion Connection in 1893); Madame C. J. Walker; and, Paul Robeson (brother of the Reverend Dr. Benjamin C. Robeson, Senior Pastor of Mother A.M.E. Zion Church, from1936 to 1963).
On July 13, 1993, Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was designated a New York City Landmark.
Hence, in giving thanks for our standing in the annals of Black History, the inaugural activities of the 223rd Anniversary celebration were held on the following dates:
• Friday, Oct. 18, 2019 – Viewing of the film “Harriet” at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, New York, NY
• Friday, Oct. 25, 2019 – Inaugural Session of the Rev. Dr. Benjamin C. Robeson Lecture Series. Rev. Stephen A. Green, Lecturer, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, New York, NY
On Sunday, October 27, 2019, at 11 o’clock in the morning, Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church celebrated 223 years of continuation, self-determination and commitment to freedom of worship and Black Liberation, led by Rev. Dr. Malcolm J. Byrd. The voices of the guests and members of Mother A.M.E. Zion were lifted in song, praise, and worship to the honor and glory of God. The processional and recessional were led with African drumming in honor of our ancestors. The Guest Preacher was the venerable Reverend Dr. Alfred C. Sharpton, Jr., Civil Rights Activist, Founder and President of the National Action Network. Reverend Sharpton delivered a motivating and thought-provoking sermon titled, “If God Be For Us;” preached from Acts 5:34-39.
The occasion was documented by United States Congressman Adriano Espaillat, of the 13th Congressional District of New York; and, New York City Council Member Bill Perkins, of the 9th Council District, Manhattan, by the issuance of Proclamations in esteem of this historic occasion.
During the service, Pastor Byrd also featured six prominent individuals as The 2019 Honorees of Distinction, in recognition of their individual involvements on the basis of jurist prudence, business, human rights and social activism. The awards presented were: THE HARRIET TUBMAN AWARD – to Cynthia Erivo, singer, songwriter and actress, who portrayed Harriet Tubman in the newly released film: “Harriet.” This award was presented to Ms. Erivo the evening of October 18, following a private showing of the film at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The producer of the film disseminated 100 tickets to Pastor Byrd for distribution to the members of Mother Zion Church, based on our connection to Harriet Tubman. In the spirit of community goodwill, Pastor Byrd also shared tickets with the neighbors of West 137th Street.
Consequently, the remaining five awards were presented on Sunday, October 27 to the following: THE FREDERICK DOUGLASS AWARD – to The Reverend Dr. Alfred C. Sharpton, Jr., for his Civil Rights Activism; THE SOJOURNER TRUTH AWARD – to Dr. Hazel N. Dukes, New York State Conference President, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.); THE MADAME C. J. WALKER AWARD – to LaDonna Boyd, President, C.E.O., and Chairman of the Board of R. H. Boyd Publishing Corp.; THE RUTH WHITEHEAD WHALEY AWARD – to The Honorable W. Franc Perry, III, New York State Supreme Court Justice; and, THE PAUL ROBESON AWARD – to Katherine Nichson, a nonagenarian at 99 years of age, life-member of Mother Zion Church and community activist. Immediately following the Anniversary worship service, the congregation processed to the lower level of the church to a Dedication and Ribbon Cutting Ceremony heralding the official opening of The MOTHER ZION – DR. DABNEY N. MONTGOMERY HERITAGE CENTER. The crypt of the Founding Father, Bishop James L. Varick, reposes in the Heritage Center.
Dabney N. Montgomery was born in Selma, Alabama on April 18, 1923 and drafted into the United States Army Air Corps, during WWII. He was a Documented Original Tuskegee Airman and served in the 1051st Quartermaster Company of the 96th Air Service Group attached to the 332nd Air Fighter Group in Southern Italy, from 1943 to 1945. In May 1949, he graduated Livingstone College and received a B.A. degree in Religious Education. He was a Charter Member of the Sphinx Club and one of the first to be admitted into the Gamma Mu Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. He was a lifetime member of the Alpha Gamma Lambda Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. In May 2015, Livingstone College conferred upon him a Doctor of Humane Letters Degree.
In 2007, along with his fellow Tuskegee Airmen, he received the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor. In June 2009, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney entered into the Congressional Record (Proceedings and Debates of the 111th Congress) to declare Dabney N. Montgomery an ‘American Hero.’
He was a dedicated member of Mother A.M.E. Zion Church from November 1955 to September 2016 and served as a Steward, Church Historian (conducted tours tracking Mother Zion’s migration from John Street to the present location), Director of the Junior Church, Sunday School Teacher, and Superintendent of the Junior Department, and served as a Greeter.
Dr. Dabney N. Montgomery transitioned to the Lonely Eagles Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. and the Omega Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, on Saturday, September 3, 2016. He was married to Amelia A. [nee: Neely} Montgomery for 44 years; they had no children.
A floating reception followed the Dedication Ceremony and a lovely time was enjoyed by all.