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"We Are the Third Congregation"

Updated: Sep 17, 2018

The reason historic buildings and their histories matter to us who live in Highland Park (or anywhere, for that matter) is that they are woven into our present lives and community and are an integral part of our common future. The recently saved church at 50 Cedar Street is a perfect example. We were lucky to be able to preserve this building because it has a national level of importance that makes it significant enough to be officially landmarked in the city. But most of the buildings in the neighborhood can't be saved that way; yet, they are at a similar level of risk of being demolished. What can we do?

We have the tool of the ACD to help us preserve the rest of the neighborhood. In fact, the fight to save the African Orthodox Church may not even have been needed had we already had the ACD in place. But the close call we had with the African Orthodox Church and the way it was almost taken from us should serve as a wake-up call and inspiration to continue the work to get the ACD implemented.

Unjust demolition in Roxbury is threat to just historic preservation in the entire city of Boston. The St. James African Orthodox Church matters to the historic, architectural and cultural fabric of our neighborhood.

Think about it this way: Every building in this neighborhood preserves an intangible history that should not be lost. Our community-wide movement to preserve the African Orthodox Church served to name and honor two congregations that came before us, what they built, and how it is an example for building a better, stronger, and inclusive future for us in the present. In the sense that we continue via the example of those two historic congregations, we are the "Third Congregation" (as Highland Park resident Mark Schafer puts it), we are history in the making.

The church building is now cared for and has been given a new future by the multi-racial, multi-generational neighborhood movement that joined together to save, landmark, and reuse the African Orthodox Church for community benefit. Let us make that Third Congregation as big as the whole neighborhood, so that we can care for and give new futures to all of our neighbors, friends, and community. This work is not just a thing of the past, but is bound with all of us for the future!

At the Landmark Commission hearing for saving the African Orthodox Church, Mark Schafer made two relevant points about the importance and significance of saving the African Orthodox Church—for Highland Park, for the city of Boston, and beyond. This is what he said:

"First, within a four-block radius of Alvah Kittridge Park you can find the following historical sites, among others:

  • The "Parting Stone" (1741) and an older companion milestone (1729) on Centre Street

  • The Dillaway-Thomas House (1750), one of the few remaining 18th-century houses in Boston, on Roxbury Street

  • The Spooner-Lambert House (1782) on Bartlett Street

  • The Fort Hill site of the Revolutionary War fort (1776) on Fort Hill Avenue

  • The First Church of Roxbury (1804) on Roxbury Street and Dudley Street

  • The Louis Prang House (1832) on Centre Street

  • Henry Hampton/Richard Bond House on Lambert Street (c. 1834)

  • The Alvah Kitteridge Greek Revival mansion (1836) on Linwood Street

  • The William Lloyd Garrison house (1844) on Highland Street

  • The Edward Everett Hale house (1841) on Moreley Street

  • The Cochichuate Standpipe (1869) on Fort Hill Ave

  • The Cox Building (1870) on Dudley Street

  • The Cedar Street marble row houses (1871) on Cedar Street

  • The so-called Dudley Manor House at 167 Centre Street

  • The Saint James African Orthodox Church (1910) on Cedar Street

"All but two of these sites were built by and commemorate Europeans settlers or European Americans, most of them of wealth. In marked contrast, the St. James African Orthodox Church celebrates and commemorates working class immigrants, racial integration, Black Caribbean immigrants, and the Civil Rights struggles in Boston, regionally, nationally, and internationally.

"Second, the Black community that immigrated to Highland Park and Roxbury more generally that not only took over custodianship and use of the Cedar Street church, but who guarded, defended, protected, advocated for, and preserved all of the historical sites mentioned above through the arson-filled ravaging of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s—preserved them for all of Boston."

Thus, in addition to the historical reasons for preserving what is around us, there are two other, integrally related additional reasons. First, in a small area, densely packed with historical sites of local, regional, and national significance, the African Orthodox Chuirch stood out for its lack of landmark status.

Second, if it were not for the very communities the AOC honors and commemorates, two groups of immigrants whose racially integrated sharing and exchange of this historic space in the 1950s is historic in and of itself, we might not have any of the sites I mentioned still standing today.

There are many other buildings around us that are part of the Black story that deserve this protection, and the ACD will be part of securing that status for them.

The AOC is both a historic landmark in itself, and a monument to the second community to inhabit it, who stewarded the church into our present day and, in the process, bequeathed to us all of the other historic sites that exist in this neighborhood.

We, the “third congregation” owe what we have to these efforts, and it falls to us to continue protecting them in the way we have learned from what came before us by making the Architectural Conservation District for the whole neighborhood. This is one way we can make the past we inherited part of the future we are all building together.

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