Throughout the experience of African Americans in United States History, religion has played an essential role in the growth and development of communities, as well as the fight for equal rights and the spread of education. This is equally true in the Middletown, Connecticut African American community, centered around the neighborhood known as the Beman triangle. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church has consistently served as the center of community life and the “backbone” of the Beman Triangle neighborhood of Middletown since the arrival of the Church in the first half of the 19th century. The Church’s role in the fight against slavery and in favor of free blacks was integral to the success of the African American community of Middletown.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded by James Varick between 1796 and 1821 after several independent African American Methodist communities in New York congregated under Varick as General Superintendent of the Church. The Church was founded as a response to the exclusion of African Americans from leadership and worship in the Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City. Founded alongside the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Philadelphia; during this period the churches were at the forefront of African American opposition to oppression and mistreatment in many northern communities, the Beman Triangle community of Middletown among them. (Sernett 1999, 156)
The A.M.E. Zion Church provided a spiritual and social outlet through Christian religious practice, but it also provided the struggling northern black population with guidance and help toward success. Advocacy for the abolition of slavery and opposition to the oppression of their fellow African Americans were the cornerstones of the A.M.E. Zion church. By separating themselves from the older Methodist groups, African Americans were able to redirect their religious expression to focus on the problems facing free and slave populations of blacks during the 19th century. (Pinn 2009, 67-68)
Methodism, out of which the A.M.E. Zion church was born, was developed by theologian John Wesley and his colleagues in Great Britain during the mid-18th century as part of a religious revival within the Church of England. Wesley and his followers were early pioneers of abolitionism and the inclusion of all people in the Church. Itinerant ministers trained by Wesley himself served as the primary vehicle for the rapid spread of Methodism during its infancy, many of them traveling to the United States and preaching to the poor, both white and black.
The Methodist message was based in revivalism, advocating social and church reform. This helped to spread the movement into areas, like the free African American community, where a widespread demand for change was building. Upon the arrival of Methodism in America, it spread rapidly among the black population, appealing to African Americans primarily through its focus on the poor and oppressed. This popularity, as well as the accessibility of Methodist itinerant ministers and church revivals, allowed the Church to flourish among black population in America. (http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/intro.html)
The evangelical revivalism of the Second Great Awakening in the mid 1700’s was essential to the conversion of many free African Americans to Methodism. Where enslaved people were forced to maintain “invisible institutions” in place of an organized church, free blacks were drawn to the evangelical faith of the Methodists which often resembled traditional African religious practice in its strongly participatory nature.
It was during the rapid spread of Methodism during the beginning of the 19th century that the A.M.E. Zion Church spread to Middletown, Connecticut. Between 1823 and 1828, a local group began to congregate in the home of a man named Asa Jeffrey as Methodists in order to practice their faith. It was the eventual establishment of what is today the Cross Street A.M.E. Zion Church that brought together the African Methodist population of Middletown. They had been meeting there for several years leading up to the arrival of the first pastor, James Anderson and the formation of the congregation by the founding trustees Asa Jeffrey, John Hamilton, Joseph Gilbert, Ebenezer DeForest, and George W. Jeffrey. In addition to fulfilling an essential need for social and religious expression within the community, the new church provided political and social assistance to its people. (http://crossstreetchurch.site.wesleyan.edu/the-founding-of-cross-street-a-m-e-zion-church-in-middletown/)
The story of the Beman Triangle often centers on its namesake Beman family, whose religious and social importance within the community allowed them to fight for equality during a period of gross inequality for African Americans in the United States. Jehiel Beman, a shoemaker, was the first of the Beman family to settle in Middletown; serving as an early pastor of the A.M.E. Zion church there. Jehiel was essential to the formation and growth of the Middletown African American community, actively working on behalf of his neighbors and in favor of the abolition of slavery. His work was an essential part of the movements for abolitionism, temperance, and wider availability of education in Connecticut. (http://crossstreetchurch.site.wesleyan.edu/jehiel-beman-community-leader/)
Beman’s work within the abolitionist movement, especially his involvement of the church with the underground railroad, gave the A.M.E. Zion Church its nickname: “Freedom Church.” This kind of work would come to characterize the behavior of the A.M.E. Zion Church in Connecticut and the rest of the country. (Cunningham, Warner 2002, 11) The political involvement of the church was one of the most valuable roles it played, both in Middletown and the rest of the nation. The Beman family helped to promote the idea that the church, and the community as a whole, should participate in the growth and assistance of the African American community, free and enslaved. The A.M.E. Zion Church often helped to set up “stations” for the underground railroad in order to help lead escaped slaves to safety. (Pinn, 69) The Beman triangle would have been just one of many locations where the Church helped in the underground railroad. The political advocacy and activism of the A.M.E. Zion Church in Middletown continued during the 1950’s and 60’s when, working with the NAACP, the Church and its members participated in a march in support of civil rights. (http://crossstreetchurch.site.wesleyan.edu/the-civil-rights-movement/)
Jehiel Beman’s son, Leverett, was behind the creation of of the African American community at the Beman Triangle in Middletown. His idea of quality housing and a close community for the middle-class black population in Middletown led to the development of just such a community around the Cross Street A.M.E. Zion Church. The church was essential in the formation of this community because of the fact that they provided a system for social and economic improvement for local African Americans so well laid out by Jehiel Beman and other pastors in the years leading up to the formation of the community. (Harris 2013, 113)
The Beman family’s importance in African American education and religious life was perhaps as important as their political and social ideas. When, In 1831, schoolteacher Prudence Crandall opened her school to African-American girls, Jehiel Beman worked to recruit students for the school. As a result of the violent protests against it, the Connecticut Assembly enacted a law in 1833 prohibiting out-of-state black people from being educated in Connecticut. (http://crossstreetchurch.site.wesleyan.edu/the-wesleyan-connection/) The Beman family’s emphasis on education continued with Amos Beman, an educated member of the Beman Triangle community who followed in his father Jehiel’s footsteps as a pastor, this time within the Congregational Church. The power of the church as a force for education and social justice for Middletown African Americans was in part due to Amos Beman’s place as a highly educated black man; initially by a student-tutor from Wesleyan University, and then at the Oneida Institute in New York. Amos Beman was an avid abolitionist and advocate of African American education, and his message was heavily reflective of that of his father, Jehiel. (Harris 2013, 111-112)
Advocacy for African American education in Middletown continued into the 20th century as well, with the Rev. William Davage, pastor of the Cross Street Church, founding the Greater Middletown Negro Youth Scholarship Fund, a program designed to help black high school students go to college. Beginning in 1965, the program helped approximately 50 black students to get an education over a period of 25 years. Pressure from this program contributed to Wesleyan University beginning recruitment of African American students that year. (http://crossstreetchurch.site.wesleyan.edu/the-civil-rights-movement/)
Throughout its history, the A.M.E. Zion Church acted in the many social, political, and religious roles it served in Middletown. These essential activities of the church were important factors in its growth and expansion, as well as the success of many African American individuals and organizations during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Beman Triangle community, centered on the Cross Street Church, was an important expression of the experience of the broader free-black population in the United States in that they suffered through the discrimination and exclusion from much of mainstream society so common to 19th century African Americans. The role of the church in the African American experience during this period is well illustrated in Middletown by the Cross Street Church’s role providing advocacy, political support, education, and religious expression for the Beman Triangle citizens, as well as Middletown’s black population as a whole.
Harris, K.J. 2013 Freedom and Slavery. In African American Connecticut Explored, edited by E. J. Normen, S. K. Close, K. J. Harris and W. M. F. Mitchell, pp. 3-12. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT.
Sernett, Milton C., 1999 African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA.
Cunningham, Janice P.; Warner, Elizabeth A. 2002 An African American Neighborhood – Middletown, Connecticut 1847-1930. Cunningham Preservation Assoc., LLC, Middletown, CT.
Hornsby, Alton., 2011 Black America: A State-by-state Historical Encyclopedia. ABC- CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA.
Maffley-Kipp, Laurie F., 2001 “The Church in the Southern Black Community: Introduction.” The Church in the Southern Black Community: Introduction. University of North Carolina, 24 July 2014. <http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/intro.html>.
2014 “Cross Street Church” Cross Street AME Zion Church – Struggle, Jubilee, Vision. Wesleyan University, 24 July 2014. <http://crossstreetchurch.site.wesleyan.edu/the-founding-of-cross-street-a-m-e-zion-church-in-middletown/>.