Columbus Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church

600 Columbus Avenue, South End

Columbus Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church, 2018. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Columbus Avenue African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church was born, according to its website, “on June 13, 1838 when seventeen persons of color withdrew from the communion of the Methodist Episcopal Church” on Beacon Hill. The Black worshipers opted to become part of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, an African American denomination.

The congregation established itself in its current location in 1903, a time when many African Americans were moving to the South End. The church purchased the building (constructed in 1888 and today the oldest synagogue building in Massachusetts) from Temple Adath Israel (now called Temple Israel and located in the Longwood area of Boston’s Fenway-Kenmore neighborhood).

Plaque on the outside of the Columbus Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church. Photo by Joseph Nevins, 2015.

Soon after the move to the South End, the church became the site of a famous conflict between Dorchester resident William Monroe Trotter, the founder of The Guardian, an influential and African American newspaper based in Boston, and Booker T. Washington. Washington’s emphasis on Black self-help and his accommodationist approach to institutionalized racism greatly frustrated Trotter and his allies, who together became known as the Boston Radicals. So when the Boston branch of the National Negro Business League invited Washington to speak at the church on July 30, 1903, Trotter and his supporters went there to confront him.

Trotter’s contentious questions, declaimed from a chair on which he stood as soon after Washington began speaking, led to shouting and shoving between supporters of the two camps; meanwhile someone reportedly threw red pepper and a stink bomb into the large crowd. Boston police, wielding billy clubs, arrested Trotter, accusing him of provoking of what came to be known as the “Boston Riot.”

While calling it a “riot” seems excessive, the event was important in raising Trotter’s stature as a key opponent of Washington. It also strengthened W.E.B. Du Bois’s identification with the Radicals, thus contributing to the formation in 1905 of the Niagara Movement, a Black civil rights organization which, unlike Washington’s “Tuskegee Machine,” took a strong stance against policies of segregation and disenfranchisement.

Getting there:

Orange Line to Massachusetts Avenue station. The church is a 0.2 mile walk away (about 4 minutes). at the corner of Northampton Street.

To learn more:

Howard Manly, “The Guardian,” The Bay State Banner, Vol. 41, No. 25, February 2, 2005.

Elliot M. Rudwick, “Race Leadership Struggle: Background of the Boston Riot of 1903,” Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 31, No. 1, 1962: 16-24.

Kayla Schott-Bresler,Columbus Avenue African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church,”, undated.

Also see the entry on “The William Monroe Trotter House” in A People’s Guide to Greater Boston.

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