In honor of Black History Month, each week, PIX11 is featuring a local NYC landmark that honors the stories of African-Americans whose contributions to the five boroughs date back hundreds of years.
For many New Yorkers, St. George’s Church has been a place of worship and an anchor of hope.
What some may not know is that the church is best known for having some pretty remarkable congregants. One notable figure is Harry Thacker Burleigh, a Black composer and baritone — who later became one of the first African-American composers to incorporate spirituality into much of his music.
Q: When did this landmark come to be? What do you think it means to New Yorkers?
Reverend Jacob Smith, Rector of the Parish of Calvary, St. George’s Church: The congregation first gathered as a chapel in Trinity Wall Street in 1747, became a church in 1811, and moved to its current location on Rutherford Place in 1846.
It was designated a New York City landmark in 1967 and a National Landmark in 1976. For a lot of New Yorkers, St. George’s has been a place of worship, an anchor of hope and a symbol of the stability that faith can bring, especially as New Yorkers have faced the highs and lows of life.
Q: What’s one thing about this landmark that most people do not know?
Reverend Jacob Smith: In 1920, a man named Thomas Simpkin shot a renowned doctor named James W. Markoe. A gunfight ensued during the service and one of the bullets is still lodged in the wall at the back of the church.
Q: How does this landmark tie back into Black History Month?
Reverend Jacob Smith: The rector of the parish, Stephen H. Tyng, 1845-1878, was a great leader in the abolitionist movement in New York City.
Harry Thacker Burleigh,1866–1949, was an African-American classical composer, arranger, and professional singer. He was a soloist at St. George’s Church for 50 years by the endorsement of J.P. Morgan at a time when many other churches did not allow African-Americans to worship in their churches. His singing directly influenced Anton Dvorjak’s “New World Symphony” and his compositions brought African-American spirituals to widespread recognition. His work influenced the Harlem jazz scene. To this day, the church still honors Harry T. Burleigh’s work by singing and arranging his music at Sunday Services.