From the floor of the sanctuary at St. Augustine's Church on Manhattan's Lower East Side, the two tiny rooms to either side of the organ where blacks worshiped in the 1800s are barely visible.
"They could see and hear but not be seen well unless they stood up," said the Rev. Deacon Edgar Hopper. "It was quintessential marginalization." After more than a decade of fundraising, research and historical restoration, one of the two "slave galleries," as they commonly are called despite being built a year after New York state passed laws officially abolishing slavery, is open for group and individual public tours.
Originally called "All Saints Free Church," the landmark church was built in 1828. The two rooms – research indicates one was for women and one for men – allowed black churchgoers to worship out of white churchgoers' sight.
"In the 19th century, slaves were chattel, considered property," Hopper said. "People don't divest themselves of property because of legislation."
The quarter-million-dollar project began in 1999 when then-rector the Rev. Errol Harvey realized that gentrification was taking over the Lower East Side and that the once primarily African-American neighborhood was diversifying, Hopper said, adding that not everyone in the congregation was interested in dredging up the past.
In 1827, the year it was outlawed, the slave population in New York was second only to that of Charleston, S.C. During the project's research phase, it was discovered that at least two of the church's founding vestry members owned slaves, Hopper said.
St. Augustine's partnered with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which promotes tolerance and understanding by showcasing and interpreting the immigrant and migrant experience in New York, on the project.
"It's wonderful to take a sight and interpret it and learn history through a building or place; it's a much more powerful way to convey history," said Annie Polland, museum vice president for education. "It's a wonderful addition to [the] Lower East Side and New York history; when I take people there, they are surprised to learn that there were slaves in New York City."
On a recent Saturday, John and Renee Mackey, Episcopalians from Hartford, Connecticut, drove to the city for a tour of the gallery. After climbing the narrow staircase – in breaking with historical accuracy for safety's sake, a handrail was installed for visitors – the Mackeys sat on the bleachers while Deborah Williams, St. Augustine's secretary, described the renovation down to the handmade nails.
Making it difficult for blacks to climb and descend the stairs was one more way of controlling them, Williams explained, adding that the galleries were cold in winter and hot in the summer and located on either side of a deafening organ.
While it is believed that men and women were forced to worship in separate galleries, based on what's believed to be a shelf for wet nursing, she said, church still provided slaves with one of few opportunities to socialize with family and friends.
Sitting in the slave gallery reminded Renee Mackey of the sci-fi series Star Trek: The Next Generation, where anthropologists built a window onto a civilization.
"They could watch but not interact or interfere," she said. "You can watch us, but you cannot be a part of us. That's how I felt in there … just a spectator, and sitting on bleachers … the cheap seats." For more information about the St. Augustine's Slave Galleries or to schedule a tour, visit www.staugsproject.org.