Collyn Robinson, Contributing Photographer

For over 200 years, Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church and Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ have been cornerstones of the New Haven community, even serving as safe havens for enslaved people who fled the South on the Underground Railroad. 

Varick Memorial Church was founded in 1820, standing as the third-oldest African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in America and the oldest Black church in New Haven. Dixwell Congregational Church, also founded in 1820, is the oldest Black congregational church in the world. It was originally located at the end of Temple Street near the modern-day expressway, but moved to Dixwell Avenue in 1860. About 100 years later, in 1969, it moved up two blocks to a space next door to the Dixwell Community House, also referred to as the Q House. The Varick Memorial Church, which remains in its original location, still contains the overlook above the church parish that several educators and community members said was the place where enslaved people were hidden. 

“Visiting this site was bittersweet,” said Marcella Monk Flake, former parishioner at the Varick Memorial Church. “The hideaway was too low to stand up in, and seeing it made the horrors of enslavement that much more real for me. I felt a need for reverence, because to me it was a sacred place. I was only there for a brief moment, and although tears filled my eyes, I could only think of the strength and resilience of my people.” 

The News spoke with New Haven community members about the Underground Railroad and its relationship to Dixwell Avenue. Conversations pointed to a comprehensive oral history, as well as some archival documents preserving the rich legacy of the two churches. 

Varick Memorial Church Pastor Kelcy Steele said overall there are limited archival documents about the history of the church in relation to the Underground Railroad and about enslaved people in general. Steele explained that this is why oral history has become the most reliable source of information with regards to the history of enslaved people. 

“A lot of times our history was not preserved,” Steele told the News. “Things were taken home, put in the attic, thrown away.” 

New Haven native Flake, who is now an educator, spoke about the time when a previous pastor at the Varick Memorial Church first gave her access to view the site where enslaved people used to hide while on their journey along the Underground Railroad. Although the hideout was intact, she said the structure was still unstable. She described the place as having a small window with a view that looks across Dixwell Avenue. Access to the space is now even more limited after a fire in the parish house a few years prior. 

Motivated by her love of history, Flake said that she first came across the information about New Haven’s ties to slavery, and more specifically the Underground Railroad, on her own. That history, she said, was not taught in school. 

The Underground Railroad was a network of safe “stops” for enslaved people making their way north to free states and Canada. The system is called the Underground Railroad because freedom-seeking enslaved people had to remain invisible and out of public view — as if they had gone underground — to avoid capture. Private homes or churches would host the formerly enslaved person until they could move on to the next stop. Two of such sites along the railroad were Varick Memorial Church and Dixwell Congregational Church. 

Pastor Steele said that well-known abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who was involved in the Underground Railroad, was a follower of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church denomination which Varick Memorial Church is a part of. 

Pamela Monk Kelley, educator and sister of Flake, said she also found out about New Haven sites of the Underground Railroad through oral history. As a person who visits churches frequently, she learned about this history from Varick community members and churchgoers.  She mentioned that when Varick holds anniversary celebrations, members typically discuss the history of the Underground Railroad and the church. While she did learn about New Haven history at school, she said that her current understanding of slavery and its ties to New Haven was not something that was taught in her classes. 

New Haven Board of Education representative Edward Joyner said that he was teaching the history of the Underground Railroad at Hillhouse High School before he even learned about the specifics of railroad and its relation to New Haven. He told the News he learned this history by living in New Haven and building relationships with the pastors at the Varick and Dixwell churches.

“By going to church there, from time to time, [the Underground Railroad in New Haven] would come up,” Joyner said. 

Dixwell Congregational Church Pastor Frederick Streets DIV ’75 was a student at the Yale Divinity School and an intern at Dixwell Congregational Church when he first found out about this history. He said he believes this knowledge is important and should be passed down from generation to generation. 

“It talks about resilience, people Black and White, but certainly about the enslaved people, their resilience, their creativity, their intelligence. … It’s a part of American History and not to have it known or understood is a blind spot,” Streets said. “Imagine leaving South Carolina, Mississippi [or] North Carolina often on foot or horseback and making your way 1,000 to 1,500 miles to freedom when you have slave catchers on the same route finding runaway enslaved people and taking them back? It was a very dangerous enterprise. This is a real story of the resiliency of humanity.”

Steele echoed the same sentiment, adding that passing on information generationally is the best way to preserve history. He said that there are “some things a textbook doesn’t capture and school doesn’t teach.” 

Flake told the News that she thinks that the history of the Underground Railroad in New Haven should always be taught in school.

“It’s criminal that it’s not taught and that it’s not taught in its entirety,” she said. “I just think that this history is so complex and tells such a rich story.” 

Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church is located on 242 Dixwell Avenue, and Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ is located on 217 Dixwell Ave. 

Collyn Robinson is the Multimedia Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. He previously served as the lead producer for the “Full Disclosure” podcast. Originally from St. Louis, he lives in Silliman College, majoring in Film and Media.