Belleville Avenue Congregational Church/Clinton Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church was designed by noted architect William Appleton Potter. The church was completed in 1874-1884 and is one of the best examples of High Victorian Gothic architecture in Newark. The church exemplifies the style through the use of polychromy, rock-faced brownstone walls, light colored stone trim, ornamental details, and chamfered window openings. Located at 151 Broadway in North Newark, Clinton Memorial is the oldest African-American church in Newark and will celebrate it’s two hundredth anniversary in 2022.
The detailed history that follows was given to me by Ms. Brenda Way, a member of the church and a co-author of the history.
The New York Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, convening at Zion Church (Now Mother Zion), in New York, in July 1822, ordained six preachers as deacons and elders, and sent them out as missionaries to take charge of societies already formed and to form new societies. Superintendent James Varick appointed the Rev. Christopher Rush to proceed to Newark, New Jersey and establish a church. He rallied a group of devout, freedom-minded people around him to give this city its first black organization.
No one knows exactly when, but sometime during the fall and winter of 1822, he began to enlist members into the new venture. This humble African Methodist group led valiantly by Rush, obtained an incorporation for the society and laid the foundation (cornerstone) at Academy Street near Plane Street on April 7, 1823. This church is now known as Clinton Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church.
In July of 1824, Newark received its second pastor in the person of Rev. Leven Smith, and in 1825, the Rev. Abraham Thompson was called out of retirement to become pastor. Thus it can be said that the first and third pastors of the Newark Society were men who were involved in the very earliest beginnings of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
191 years ago the A.M.E. Zion Church worshiped on Academy Street. Shortly after the Civil War the congregation was split, with one branch becoming Methodist Episcopal, and the loyal Zionites retaining their denominational identity. This great setback for the Zion Church in Newark came about when a disloyal Zion minister was appointed to the Zion Church of Newark. Because of his disaffection and dissatisfaction over several matters, he persuaded a large number of the members to go into the Methodist Episcopal Church; now Franklin St. John United Methodist Church. The loyal Zionites, however, found another location and continued to worship in the name of Zion.
About 1868, a Mr. Richardson and his family, loyal members of Zion in Reevytown, NJ, moved to Newark and united with the Zion congregation which at the time was worshiping on Prince Street near Springfield Avenue. They became the pillars of the church. The Rev. Samuel Berry was pastor of the church at the time. The congregation moved from Prince Street to Market Street, and for some time worshiped in the old Banneker Hall (the site of the Proctor’s Theater in more recent times). The congregation moved from Banneker Hall to Beecher Street, near West Kinney Street. From Beecher Street the congregation moved to East Kinney Street and then to Pennington Street, where it remained until 1918. Rev. Henry M. Wilson, a graduate of Princeton University, built the Pennington Street Church.
Under the pastorate of the Rev. Dr. S.L. Corrothers, the congregation moved to the Roosevelt Temple on Washington Street in 1918. It remained there for nine years. The Roosevelt Temple was sold and a church building was purchased on the corner of Montgomery and Barclay Streets, where they remained for four years. Succeeding Dr. Corrothers was Rev. J.B. Kirby, who served for one year. The Rev. O.J. Remsen, who also served one year, succeeded him. Rev. J.M. Hoggard followed Rev. Remsen and it was during his pastorate that the present church building was purchased. The congregation moved in on the first Sunday in October 1930. After one year, Rev. Hoggard was succeeded by Rev. James C. Nelson, who was appointed by Bishop P.A. Wallace in May 1931.
The purchase of the church building was regarded by Zion leadership and members of the church as a bad and unwise idea. For a long time it seemed that the opposition was right in their judgment. The church was purchased during the worst depression in American history. Highly populated centers and cities such as Newark felt the brunt of the depression. In spite of the opinions of many of the members, the majority of the congregation did not give up, hoping and praying that a brighter day would come. In 1938, hope began to brighten when the prongs of the depression began to relax its grip upon our country. Industries began to call for workers, as the clouds of war became imminent.
In 1947, after laboring under an enormous mortgage, Rev. Dr. Nelson led the congregation in liquidating the debt. One of his signature achievements was breaking up the century old pattern of wandering from location to location. He also gave the church an established Victorian Gothic edifice, where they could work for continual growth and expansion in the future. He served a record thirty-three years. The Rev. Johnnie M. Hall Sr., appointed Assistant Pastor to Rev. Nelson by Bishop Herbert Bell Shaw, served as interim pastor of Clinton for nine months following the death of Rev. Nelson in June 1963.
The Rev. Charles E. Bourne, was appointed by Bishop Herbert Bell Shaw as the pastor in 1964. During his seventeen years of service, Dr. Bourne sought to strengthen the great work done by Dr. Nelson. During his tenure the refurbishing and remodeling of our building began. New pews for the sanctuary were purchased and ministries expanded to meet the ever growing demands of our community.
In 1981, Bishop Alfred G. Dunston, Jr., appointed the Rev. William Everett Kelly as pastor. Rev. Kelly served 14 years, during which the church purchased a new parsonage and a $150,000 parking lot, expanded the ministries of the church, and added offices on the lower level. Rev. Kelly involved the church in the life of the community. It was during his tenure that the church became a State and National Historic Landmark. The State designation was on June 25, 1986 and the National designation was on August 13, 1986. During his tenure, we applied for and received a $132,210 matching grant from the New Jersey Historic Preservation Bond Program to replace and restore the roof of the church to its original slate and asphalt structure.
In 1995, Bishop Cecil Bishop appointed Rev. Louis B. Richardson interim pastor for four months until the appointment of Rev. Nathaniel B. Legay. Under Rev. Legay’s leadership, the congregation continued to grow and flourish. One of the most successful ministries he developed was that of Evangelism, which continues to move forward with vim and vigor today. The food and clothing ministry enabled us to assist the hungry and homeless of our community. The new roof was completed in1997. In November 1997, Rev. Legay and the Clinton Memorial family commemorated the 175th Anniversary of the church with a gala celebration at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark.
Rev. Dr. Frances Murray-Williams was appointed pastor by Bishop Marshall H. Strickland in May 1998. She was the second female pastor to ever be appointed to Clinton Memorial. The first was Dr. Florence Randolph, an often overlooked fact. Rev. Murray-Williams has often been referred to as the first female pastor of the church. She was a visionary pastor with a heart for doing ministry. Her pastoral theme during her tenure was “Renewal and Transformation.” She successfully developed several ministries at the church including Pastor’s Chat with the Children, Noon Day Worship, New Members’ Class, Lectures for Living, and Leadership Training Institute.
In May 2005, Bishop Nathaniel P. Jarrett, Jr., sent the Presiding Elder of the Jersey City District, Reverend Theodore Calhoun, Jr., to supply the church until he was able to make Clinton Memorial’s next pastoral appointment. That appointment came in May 2006 when Bishop Jarrett appointed the Reverend Dr. William McKenith pastor of Clinton Memorial.
In February 2012, Bishop Louis Hunter, Sr. appointed Reverend Robert H. Taylor, Sr. as Pastor of Clinton Memorial. He initiated the process to obtain a grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust for the restoration of the exterior of our church. The initial assessment of the property and what needs to be done has been completed by the Trust. Restoration will be an ongoing project for the church. Additionally, under Rev. Taylor’s leadership, Clinton Memorial successfully hosted the 2012, 2014 and 2015 Holy Conclaves for the MidAtlantic I Episcopal District, hosted the 141st NJ Annual Conference in 2015 and is scheduled to host the 143rd NJ Annual Conference in May 2017. Several improvements to the property have also been made, including restoration of the asphalt in the parking lot, new fencing for one of the parking lot entrances, new carpeting in portions of the sanctuary, new floors in both the kitchen and dining rooms, fresh coats of paint on various walls, woodwork and chairs, roof repairs, start of stain glass restoration, upgrade of fire escape, and new kitchen fire suppression system.
We are truly thankful to Almighty God for our Struggles, Steadfastness, and Triumphs proclaiming his Kingdom.We acknowledge and remember our glorious past and look forward to even greater things in the future as we continue to walk by faith.
Compiled by Christine £ Trigg
Edited and updated by Brenda Way
Many thanks to Ms. Brenda Way for sharing the history of Clinton Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church and my heartfelt good wishes to the congregation as they approach their two hundredth anniversary.