Pauline Williams knew a lot about the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church when she moved to Schenectady around 70 years ago, but she wasn’t at all familiar with the name of Isaac Groot Duryee.
Over the last few weeks that has changed. As Marsha Mortimore and others prepared for this weekend’s 175th anniversary celebration, members of the Duryee Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the first black church in the history of Schenectady, have been busy getting acquainted with their past.
“No, I didn’t realize who the founder was, but he must have been a very good man,” said Williams, who moved to Schenectady in 1941 and turns 90 later this year. “Now I know. Marsha has done a tremendous job researching him and telling us all about him.”
Duryee, a Schenectady native born in 1810, was a student at Union College in 1837 when he helped Schenectady’s small black community build its first church. A historic marker at that site near the present-day City Hall on Jay Street will be unveiled at 10 a.m. Saturday, and a reception open to the public will follow the church’s regular Sunday service at 11:30 a.m.
A member of the college’s Anti-Slavery Society, Duryee and a few friends purchased a plot of land in 1836 and presented it to a small group of blacks looking to build their first church. With Duryee leading the way and getting help from the First Reformed Church of Schenectady and Union College president Eliphalet Nott, the “African Church” was open for services in the fall of 1837. The congregation was renamed the Duryee Memorial AME Church in 1894 and in the summer of 1908 moved to its current building at 307 Hulett St.
“Duryee was truly a remarkable man,” said Mortimore, who has been researching her church’s history for more than 10 years now. “He was very much an anti-slavery man and spent most of his life condemning slavery and working against it.”
Local historian Frank Taormina, a Union College graduate and former high school history teacher at Niskayuna, said Duryee was a staunch anti-slavery voice at a very early age.
“He was very outspoken and a very enthusiastic abolitionist, and wanted to do everything he could to help black people,” said Taormina, a past president of the Schenectady County Historical Society. “He played a huge role in building the first black church in Schenectady, and he did it while he was still a student at Union. He was a young guy but he was still really fired up by the cause he believed in. You’re not going to find too many college students doing the things that he did.”
After graduating from Union in 1838, Duryee went to Andover Theological Seminary in New Haven, Conn., and was soon back in Schenectady as pastor of the Second Reformed Church. In 1862 he was recruited by the 81st New York Infantry to be their chaplain during the Civil War. He served with that regiment through the war but became sick with a fever in 1864 and never fully recovered. He died on Feb. 8, 1866, at age 55, leaving behind a wife and eight children.
The Rev. James McCathan, senior pastor at the Duryee Memorial AME Zion Church, has also enjoyed getting to know Duryee.
“He had vision and he did a great job,” said McCathan. “Marsha’s been telling us about him and now our job is building on that legacy.”
Williams began going to the Duryee Church with her mother, longtime member Vera Mae Williams, who died in 2000 at the age of 100. To both of them, the church was like a second home.
“It’s a small congregation, but it feels warm and close,” she said. “I like the messages I get here. When we moved here we started going to this church because we went to the AME Zion Church in Gloversville. That was the only black church in Gloversville and since this one was the same denomination we started coming here. But my mother really became devoted to this place.”
Vera Mae Williams became a deacon at Duryee Memorial and was also honored by being named a Mother of the Church. Other church members included James Stamper, the first black supervisor at the General Electric Co., who died in 2006 at the age of 93.
“They bestowed that award on my mother and other women who have excelled in their service to the church,” explained Williams. “There have been so many great people we’ve met there. My mother worked with Jim Stamper at the Schenectady NAACP and he was a wonderful man, really devoted to the church. If you couldn’t find him at home, you’d find him at church.”
“Duryee is like a family setting,” said Gregory Davenport, a member of the church for 12 years and chairman of the 175th anniversary celebration. “Everybody there is like family, and I think that makes us a little bit different.”
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy will offer a short speech at Saturday’s historic marker unveiling and the Duryee Church men’s choir will also perform. Sunday’s worship service and reception are also open to the public.