Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Black History in Action for Cambridgeport’s Kris Manjapra inside St. Augustine’s Church. (Photo: Cambridge Community Foundation)

In December 1886, the Cambridge Chronicle noted that St. Peter’s Episcopal congregation in Central Square had just commissioned a new mission church. Located on Allston Street in Cambridgeport, “a great distance” from St. Peter’s, this building would serve the people of the Cambridgeport neighborhood and would be known as St. Phillip’s. Over the next several decades, the new congregation grew and flourished. But by the late 1910s and early 1920s, changing demographics and a proliferation of churches meant that St. Phillip’s faced increasing competition for both parishioners and financial resources. By 1926, a dwindling parish population led St. Phillip’s to sell the building to the African Orthodox Church. They renamed it St. Augustine’s.

By the time of St. Augustine’s founding, the Rev. George McGuire had been living in the Cambridge area for more than two decades. McGuire had come to the Boston College of Physicians and Surgeons from Antigua to study medicine. He was also an ordained minister in the Episcopal church. Soon after his arrival in Cambridge, McGuire became involved in the struggle for civil rights for Black Cantabrigians through direct political action and mutual aid societies centered around local churches. In 1908, he founded St. Bartholomew’s Church, serving a largely West Indian congregation in Cambridge.

Shortly after establishing St. Bartholomew’s, McGuire became increasingly involved in the Universal Negro Improvement Association and grew close to its leader, Marcus Garvey. Like McGuire, Garvey was from the West Indies (Jamaica), and advocated for pan-African unity, civil rights and social uplift for members of the African diaspora. World War I and the struggle by European and American powers to hold onto control over the lands and people they had colonized in other parts of the world had solidified for leaders of the association that those of African descent needed their own political, economic and religious institutions to achieve full equality. In 1921, McGuire founded the African Orthodox Church as the religious arm of the UNIA . In 1926, the newly opened St. Augustine’s became its basilica.

For several decades after its founding, St. Augustine’s played a vital role in the life of Cambridge’s large African-Caribbean community. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the Great Caribbean Migration saw a sizable influx of people to the Boston area from Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados and other West Indian islands. Centered in large part around the church, this community established social and economic networks to help and support one another.

St. Augustine’s Church in Cambridgeport. (Photo: History Cambridge)

But as the Cambridgeport neighborhood grew and changed over the past half-century and many of its Black residents have been displaced, St. Augustine’s has fallen into disrepair. In 2018, leaders of the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association and members of the church community began the work of preserving and restoring the historic building. The Cambridge Historical Commission and other public and private organizations lent their support to this work, and in 2019 Black History in Action for Cambridgeport was born. Co-founded by Tufts University historian and Cambridgeport resident Kris Manjapra, BHAC’s goal is to bring together parishioners of St. Augustine’s, led by the Rev. Kit Eccles, locals and community leaders to preserve the church’s physical structure and its important place in the life of Cambridgeport’s Black community.

BHAC’s vision for the future of St. Augustine’s is one in which the congregation can be restored to the heart of Cambridgeport in substance and in spirit. The building’s roof was replaced in 2019, and an ongoing capital campaign aims to transform the space into a revitalized house of worship that also serves as a space for social justice and community engagement and for artistic and cultural programming. A new Black Space for Arts and Empowerment will host performances, meetings and classes that serve the residents of Cambridgeport.

Black History in Action for Cambridgeport is committed to using the resources of the community, anchored at St. Augustine’s, to engage in historical research on Black Cambridgeport. Through the collection of oral histories, the creation of a tour of key cultural and historical neighborhood sites and the curation of documents and artifacts from St. Augustine’s past, BHAC seeks to uncover and amplify the rich history of the African-Caribbean diaspora as it has existed for more than a century in Cambridgeport. It shares its findings with the broader community through in-person and virtual programming, as well as through its podcasts and on its website.

Learn more about BHAC and support its efforts by visiting the organization’s website. History Cambridge is proud to partner with and support the vital work that Black History in Action for Cambridgeport is undertaking to document and share the experiences of Black Cambridgeport residents past and present.

whitespace

About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name and a new mission.

We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We listen to our community and we live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.

Throughout 2023, we are focusing on the history of Cambridgeport. Make history with us at historycambridge.org.


Beth Folsom is programs manager for History Cambridge.