A Church With A Colorful History
By Don Rittner

On Saturday, October 4th, a small unpretentious white church on Hoosick and 10th, and its small congregation, will be celebrating 135 years of history. While it is not an imposing structure, nevertheless the history associated with this congregation makes it tower over many other institutions in the area. Not only is it a celebration of survival, but also the celebration of a merger of two churches - Oakwood and Liberty Presbyterian - both with cultural ties but separate histories.

Prior to 1840, Trojans who practiced the Presbyterian faith, both black and white, worshipped in the Classical designed First Presbyterian Church on First Street, now owned by Russell Sage College. The 33 black members of the church worshipped in the balcony.

According to the Troy Budget, on Thursday, Nov 27th 1834, a building was "erected in this city for the use of the people of color, situated on the north side of Liberty Street... [and] dedicated to the service and worship of Almighty God." The upper floor was used as a church while the first floor was used as a day school for black kids and a night school for adults.

On January 17, 1840, it was formerly organized as the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church. Two notable organizers were Rev. Nathan S. Beman, and Rev Fayette Shipard. Beman (Beman Park is named for him) was a former head of the Presbyterian Church, and Shipard, an abolitionist, headed the Bethel Church, Society of Congregationalists, on Fulton and Fifth. It's no wonder that Liberty's first pastor was former slave and abolitionist Henry Hyland Garnet, who served there for 7 years.

During Garnet's reign, Liberty hosted conventions to promote black freedom and equality. The 1841 meeting of the State Convention of People of Color marked the beginning of today's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Garnet went on to call for a slave revolt in 1843, and in 1855, Underground Railroad organizers openly met there defying the law. Garnet became ambassador to Liberia in 1881, shortly before he died. While primarily a black congregation, Liberty also reached out to Italian immigrants working on the Barge Canal in the early 1900's.

Liberty Church was torn down when it became structurally unsound and for 22 years the congregation met at a Methodist church on State and Fifth Avenue until that too was demolished. Liberty patrons were in need of a new home.

Oakwood Presbyterian began as a Sunday school above a grocery store on Hoosick Street in 1866 (still standing). In 1868, the 56 members moved into the present structure on the corner of Oakwood and 10th.

Oakwood not only served Trojans but also in true missionary style served Native Americans in the West during the 1870's, had missions in China during the 1920's and sponsored others in East Africa, Liberia, and the Tennessee Mountains during the 1940's. In 1952, they sponsored a displaced Palestinian family.

Oakwood also had their own school, Oakwood Institute, and was educating the community between 1869 and 1874 before public schools were built in the area.

Oakwood also had its heroes. Robert Ross, the legendary Trojan, gunned down by Bat Shea for trying to preserve the ballot, was a member of the church, as was his father, George Ross, owner of Ross Valve, still operating a few feet from the church. John Sherry, another member, purchased land and donated it as the first public park to the city, today known as Beman Park (The Village Green, now Seminary Park on Congress, was donated by the Vanderheydens).

However, Oakwood was to make modern history in 1963 when two days after the assassination of President John Kennedy it merge with Liberty Presbyterian, giving that congregation a home again. It was controversial considering these were the early days of the civil rights movement, but as they proclaimed that day they were "one of the few churches in the nation to act on the belief that character, not color, is the standard of Christian fellowship.'' It is a standard they still keep.

Both Liberty and Oakwood were stoned during riots of the 19th century. Liberty lost its home to bulldozers and Oakwood nearly burned to the ground several times, saved only by the fact that the Bussey Fire House was across the street. During the last few decades, it even has escaped the ravage of the RT. 7 realignment by DOT.

Remarkably, it has survived all this and will open its door to the public this Saturday. Not only will you meet some wonderful people, an exhibit curated by Michael Lopez, featuring photography by Clifford Oliver, will guide your through this long and colorful history.