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
Photograph by Richard Pieper. Courtesy of New York Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.
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.
St. James AME Zion Church is located in Ithaca, New York at 116-118 Cleveland Avenue. It is
open to the public.
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