Princeton residents participate in Heritage Tour, celebrate historic congregations

Standing on the sidewalk in front of a small, wood-frame building in need of a coat of paint, Elder Kevin Bynes Sr. pointed to the building as the first real home of the Morning Star Church of God in Christ.

The church, which is in another building a couple of doors away at 41 Birch Ave., was the first stop on a walking tour to commemorate the unveiling of the Heritage Tour plaques of the four African-American churches in Princeton.

Led by Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society President Shirley Satterfield, the Aug. 10 tour was held in conjunction with the week-long Joint Effort Safe Streets program in Princeton that brings residents together to celebrate the historic neighborhood.

The Morning Star Church of God in Christ was founded in 1923 by Elder Daniel Culp Thomas in his home on Birch Avenue. When the building next door to his home became available, the congregation purchased it and moved into it. Later, the church moved to its current location at 41 Birch Ave.

Bynes introduced Mamie Lee Oldham, whose family, the Lees, were among the original members of the congregation. She is one of the last members of that family, he said as he and Oldham pulled off the cover to unveil the plaque.

Moving a few blocks up Witherspoon Street, the group stopped at Mt. Pisgah AME Church at the corner of Witherspoon and Maclean streets to unveil the plaque outside the church.

Mt. Pisgah AME Church is the oldest African-American church in Princeton. Led today by the Rev. Dr. Deborah Blanks, the congregation was organized in 1832 by the Rev. Samson Peters, who led the Trenton African Methodist Episcopal Church. Blanks and Marsha Winston unveiled the plaque.

The church’s first home was in a small frame schoolhouse on Witherspoon Street. It was succeeded by another building in 1835, and that was followed by a third building that was destroyed by a fire in 1839. The present building was constructed in 1860.

The Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church at the corner of Witherspoon and Quarry streets grew out of the First Presbyterian Church – known today as the Nassau Presbyterian Church on Nassau Street – in 1836.

That is when 90 of its 131 black members were dismissed by the Presbyterian Church on Nassau Street to form a church of their own, according to the plaque that was unveiled by Mrs. Satterfield. Her family has belonged to the church for six generations.

The official date of the church is 1840 because that is when the congregation held its first Holy Communion. Among the ministers at the church was the Rev. William Robeson.

The congregation, initially known as the First Presbyterian Church of Color in Princeton, was made up of free and enslaved African-Americans who came together to build something of their own, said the Rev. Lukata Mjumbe. Many of the earliest pastors were white men.

The tour wrapped up at the First Baptist Church at the corner of John Street and Paul Robeson Place. It was founded in 1885 as the Bright Hope Baptist Church and met at the home of Frederick Jackson, around the corner on Green Street.

As it grew, the congregation met at the Riley Building on Witherspoon Street and then at the Odd Fellows Hall at the corner of Witherspoon and Maclean streets, before settling at its current location. It was renamed the First Baptist Church in 1930.

The First Baptist Church is currently without a minister, said Lance Liverman, who chairs the Board of Trustees, and Lamont Fletcher, who chairs the Board of Deacons, as they unveiled the plaque.