Syracuse native Eddie Brooks says the crumbling building at 711 E. Fayette St. was once the nucleus of the community where he grew up.
“We were like a family. Everyone knew everyone. If you needed anything, they were there,” Brooks said.
Brooks says his family has been with the congregation for generations. His grandmother used to tell him stories of the people who came to the 15th Ward. Some were civil rights leaders or entertainers passing through. Others came to stay.
“A lot of people that came here came from the South,” Brooks said. “They came here seeking jobs, a better way of life. Most of them started right here in the 15th Ward, on Fayette Street.”
“They would come through here because they knew that they were safe, and that they had a place,” he said.
The congregation funded the construction of the former location of People’s A.M.E. Zion Church in 1910. Although it is boarded up, the two-storied, white stone structure still stands.
The stained glass windows, staircases, and kitchen area are aging, but intact.
In the sanctuary, the plaster walls are peeling off, giving way to exposed red brick. Plastic covers most of the windows. Brooks points out the altar, the choir area, and the place where he sat during services as a young boy.
“Seeing the church so squalid, in such disarray … it saddens me,” Brooks said.
“When you talk about African-American congregations, every African-American church that you probably can see in the city of Syracuse has some sort of tie to the People’s Church,” said the Rev. Daren C. Jaime. Throughout the years, congregation members were heavily involved in the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights movement.
In 1975, the congregation moved to its current location on South Salina Street. Although they continued to own 711, it became too expensive to keep up. The Rev. Jaime says that when the congregation voted to sell the building, they were contacted with a different kind of offer.
“We were approached by Assemblyman Sam Roberts and some other people, talking about the possibility of restoring and really saving what would be a historical piece of the 15th Ward,” he said.
Soon after, the Save 711 Committee was formed and charged with making plans to restore the building. The full renovations could cost nearly $1 million.
“It’s an ongoing process … A million dollars can take a few years to raise, it can take a couple of years to raise,” said the Rev. Jaime. “We’re hoping within the next two to three years that we can complete the fundraising component and get some construction done.”
Eddie Brooks says he’s heartened by these developments.
“The history is still there,” Brooks said. “This is a monumental part of this history. Our next generation, they will know the history of Syracuse. As far as people of color, how they got started, and how they have really contributed to this community and to Syracuse.”
For more information about the Save 711 Committee, visit http://save711amezion.org/.