The oldest church building in Coxsackie, founded by former enslaved people, is about to receive special recognition for its historic significance in the community. Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church will be the recipient of a historic marker from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation.
When a church as old as the pre-Civil War Bethel AME appears on the radar of the Pomeroy Foundation after all these years, it’s a sign that historic recognition is well-deserved yet long overdue. And when volunteer researcher Linda Deubert, the retired director of the Heermance Memorial Library in Coxsackie, traces the church’s history to a set of founders, all of them either former enslaved people or descendants of slaves, it puts a unique spin on Bethel AME’s legacy.
Deubert’s research indicated that enslaved people commonly took the names of the slave owners. That was the clincher.
“The founders of the church, in 1856, were John Clow, Abraham Clow, Benjamin Bronk and William Van Allen,” Deubert said.
“I saw the name Bronk and I thought, the Bronk family started the AME church? All the trustees had common Coxsackie names, many of them Dutch names,” Deubert said. “It looks like Benjamin Bronk was born to Maria, who was ‘owned’ by Leonard Bronk. These people, who were all African-American, were founders and trustees, and they had Dutch names because people in Coxsackie had slaves. I had never really thought about that before.”
Today, 165 years later, Bethel AME Church Pastor Shirley Whitlock said the hard times of slavery brought people closer to God. “When things are happening, where else can you go?” Whitlock said. “And that’s what slaves went through — they were being beaten, they were being raped, they were stripped from their homes. Where else do you go? I believe that is what made the church have so much significance.”
That significance continues to this day.
“We are still feeding the hungry, we are still clothing the naked, people are still homeless after all these years,” Whitlock said.
Bethel AME is the oldest African Methodist church in the county, Greene County Historian Jonathan Palmer said.
“It’s the one that reaches back to a time that allows us to talk about the end of slavery in New York state and the years leading up to the Civil War and the way the African-American community in Greene County defined themselves as a unique community of free people,” Palmer said.
If the church had its roots in the American tragedy of slavery, then its founders unknowingly planted the seeds of diversity and freedom. This is Bethel AME’s legacy.