Two historic Black churches in New York City are about to receive national preservation grants.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation announced this week that Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem and Varick Memorial AME Zion Church in Brooklyn will each receive $200,000 through the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and its "Preserving Black Churches" program.

Brent Leggs, executive director of the Action Fund, said as the organization interacted with churches across the country, many described facing similar issues, including “deferred maintenance, insufficient funding, aging congregations on limited incomes (and) threats of demolition."

Those concerns moved the National Trust to take action. “We wanted to intervene, and to help Black churches steward our nation's cultural assets,” Leggs said. Grants were determined through a seven-month “comprehensive evaluation process,” he explained. He said this year the organization received more than 1,200 funding proposals from churches across the country. Grants ranged from $50,000 to $200,000.

“We go through this very intentional, multiphased vetting process,” he explained. “We start with letters of intent, and then we select a small number of churches to submit full applications.”

Leggs says the project, which is giving $4 million in grants to 35 Black churches across the country, feels imperative because to him those institutions have been at the forefront of critical and meaningful democratic reform in society.

“From the abolition of slavery and the public education movement, to the advent of civil rights and the expansion of voting rights, the Black church has helped to interpret the spiritual mandate of democracy in ways that has benefited not only the Black community, but other underrepresented and marginalized communities,” he said.

Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem was designated a New York City landmark in 1993.

Mother AME Zion, the state's oldest Black church, was the founding church of the AME Zion Conference, which spread throughout the U.S. and Canada. The church popularly known as Mother Zion was established by James Varick in 1796 and has a history of social activism, and according to city documents it served as a station on the Underground Railroad.

Malcolm Byrd, senior pastor of Mother AME Zion, argues that churches like the one he leads have played a key role in creating New York City's Black middle class by advocating for quality housing, jobs, collectives that support Black business ownership, and the arts.

“When you talk about the Harlem Renaissance, Mother AME Zion was literally Black New York's concert hall when Black people could not get into Carnegie Hall,” Byrd said. “When we could only perform at the Apollo, but we were not at that time permitted to be patrons. The Black church meant absolutely everything to us prior to the days of full integration.”

Mother AME Zion, which was designated a city landmark in 1993, regularly receives donations from visitors, which augment its working budget. But, Byrd said, “I could have 500 tourists from all over the world on Sunday mornings – and most Sundays I do – but those 500 people perhaps will collectively give maybe $150. So there was no understanding and no appreciation of what Black churches have to do to survive today.”

Mother AME Zion plans to use its grant from the National Trust to establish an endowment fund. The church won’t use the principal balance, Byrd explains, but instead hopes to draw from the interest for regular maintenance and future preservation.

“We didn't want to write this grant for $200,000 to fix something that perhaps is broken in the church, or to repair a roof or anything like that, because once that's repaired, something else is going to break,” Byrd said. “We want to be very intentional about ensuring that 100 years from now, Mother Zion is safe from closure because there are funds that have been put away that will keep the building in tip-top shape. Even if the people aren't seated in the pews anymore, the church will still survive.”

Varick Memorial AME Zion Church will put its $200,000 grant to more immediate use. The congregation, which was also founded by James Varick and is Brooklyn's oldest continuous Black congregation, was incorporated in 1818. It, too, has a history of activism, hosting visits and debates with prominent Black leaders including Shirley Chisholm, Samuel D. Wright, Al Sharpton, Edolphus Towns and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins.

Despite that eminence, the church has stood vacant since 2020, with vital maintenance deferred due to insufficient funds.

David Simpson, a steward for Varick Memorial, says the building's heating, ventilation and roof had posed serious issues for years. When the city went into pandemic lockdown in 2020, the church began hosting virtual services on Zoom.

The congregation still hasn’t returned to its physical space, but operating costs, dues and taxes on property the church owns have continued to mount. Receiving the grant is a “generational breakthrough,” Simpson said.

“This [grant] is going to provide us the funds that we need to repair the roof, first and foremost, and then repair some of the heating and cooling issues that we've been having with the building, so that we can actually find ourselves worshiping back in person,” Simpson said. “If we don't get this grant, we don't really have a pipeline in this foreseeable future of having our congregation to meet back in person. And that's huge for us.”