It’s unfortunate that a historic structure in Watertown has been neglected for so long.
People involved with the Underground Railroad founded the faith community of Thomas Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, 715 Morrison St., in 1878. This was a network of individuals who assisted slaves escaping the South and find their way to Canada, where they were free from capture.
Aside from its historic origins, Thomas Memorial AME Zion Church became a facility known for promoting black history. Building caretaker William E. Crabbe taught classes at the church and in the community, regularly using resources kept in the Henry R. Barr Community Learning Center at the church. Crabbe died in 2017, taking with him much of the energy left to keep the church operating.
Booker T. Washington, a renowned intellectual who taught at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, spoke at the church in 1914. He was among several leaders in the black community to seek funding for the legendary school from supporters in Watertown.
So it’s obvious that Thomas Memorial AME Zion Church is historically significant. But its remaining members died off, and there are questions about who actually owns the building.
The church was scheduled to be sold at auction in June 2017; it owed about $1,820 in back taxes to the city of Watertown and the Watertown City School District. But the Rev. Daren C. Jaime, senior pastor of the People’s AME Zion Church in Syracuse, paid the taxes and postponed the sale. He previously served as pastor of Thomas Memorial AME Zion Church, reopening its door in 2013 after it has been closed for two years.
However, structural issues have plagued the church. The city’s Code Enforcement office discovered last year that the steeple and chimney are deteriorated and have become unattached to the building.
What’s needed here is an individual or group with sufficient funds to take possession of the church and address problem areas. Reginald J. Schweitzer Jr., executive director of Neighbors of Watertown, has taken an interest in preserving the building.
He’s among a group of people who want to save the church. Another member is Judith Wellman, a retired SUNY Oswego history professor and owner of Historical New York Research Associates. This offers some hope that the historic structure has a brighter future.
“In June 2020, Mr. Schweitzer purchased the building’s tax sale certificate during a public auction held by the city comptroller’s office. Partly because the auction was held during the pandemic, the transaction went unnoticed,” according to a story published Wednesday by the Watertown Daily Times. “He also didn’t purchase the tax sale certificate in his name but through an LLC that he owns. His $854.28 investment could save the building from worsening conditions and possible demolition. If no one pays the $2,140 in back taxes by June, the property will be transferred to him.”
If Schweitzer takes possession, this would at least answer the question of ownership. Someone who has the authority to make decisions can take appropriate measures to salvage the building and chart a course of how it will be used.
This is an encouraging development for a church with such a storied background. We wish this group well in its efforts to keep Thomas Memorial AME Zion Church alive so that future generations of residents will learn of its role in the history of our community and nation.