by Bill Batson
Recent discoveries at Mount Moor Cemetery in West Nyack are shedding light on the central role that St. Philip’s AME Zion Church played in the transition of black life in American from Slave to Free in Rockland County. Thanks to the meticulous research, down to the granular level, of William Stump, a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War we are learning that many men who are buried at Mount Moor Cemetery led or were members of St. Philips, which is located at Mill and North Burd Streets in Nyack. Upcoming projects, inspired by Stump’s research, are giving epically courageous men, who either escaped the cruel institution or raised arms to destroy it, their day in the sun. In just a few weeks, Stump’s research has vivified five of the eternal residents of Mount Moor. In these recovered narratives, the name of John Towt, and the church he founded, St. Philip’s come up again and again. Based on Stump’s work, the Mount Moor Cemetery Association will seek to have the markers of all of the civil war veterans at Mount Moor restored or replaced. But for local historians, the missing pieces of this turbulent time of racial violence and strife emerge, are begging to be assembled into a full account. Considering that many are trying to re-litigate the Civil War through battles over monuments, flags and the naming of military bases, an understanding of the relative valor and villainy of the combatants becomes crucial for the maintenance of our contemporary domestic tranquility. Here is a snap shot of St. Philips AME Zion Church, John W. Towt and a recently completed profile on Rev. Charles Mayo, a Pastor at St. Philip’s, resting in power in Mount Moor Cemetery. St. Philip’s AME Zion Church
Two years before Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president, St. Philip’s A.M.E. Zion Church was founded in 1859 by abolitionist John W Towt. Today, the term abolitionist is considered a badge of honor. In the 1850’s, as slave catchers roamed the north empowered by the loathsome Fugitive Slave Act, the title brought legal jeopardy and mortal danger. It was under the gathering and ominous clouds of a civil war over race based slavery that Towt arrived in Nyack determined to contribute to the welfare of the black community. In 1821, the 19 year old white Methodist was exposed to the cruel perversion of slavery while traveling through the south. Towt settled in Nyack in 1859 after a successful career in New York City where he amassed a fortune. He immediately threw himself into the effort to ensure that there was a Sunday school for black children in the village. At the same time he made arrangements to secure property for a church building and accommodations for a minister.
It is not surprising that the church that Towt would help establish was of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion denomination. The A.M.E. Zion Church was founded in New York in 1796. From its inception the church was an active participant in the Underground Railroad and counted Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth as members.
Although Towt played many roles in the congregation including superintendent of the Sunday School, the day to day operation and religious activities of the church were led by members and pastors of African decent. The enduring wooden edifice at the corner of Burd and North Mill Street is evidence of the prudence and probity of the congregation. At a meeting in early 1886, the chairman of the building committee, William H. Myers, argued against repairing the church and asked all those in favor of building a new church to stand. The whole congregation rose to his challenge. My great grandfather, George T. Avery, was one of those who stood up. As the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, he contributed $36 towards the $2,311 that was eventually raised. The building that was dedicated on Sunday December 17th 1886 was of such solid design and durable material that it still stands.
Mr. Towt made his last public appearance in the pulpit of St. Philip’s on September 11, 1887. He was said to have been pleased with the results of his 28 years of collaboration with Nyack’s black community. He told those assembled that as its founder, he felt doubly repaid by the fact that his efforts had not been in vain.
December 2 Armchair Tour Lecture:
Mount Moor: Time to Pay Respect
Guest Speaker William Stump
Click here to register for Mount Moor Armchair tour on December 2nd, 7p program, sponsored by Mount Moor Cemetery Association, The Historical Society of the Nyack and the Nyack Library. Bill Batson: what we can learn from the civil war dead buried at Mount Moor? Bill Stump: “I think every group in the Civil War brings a unique life experience from Joshua Chamberlain’s Bowdoin College students putting aside abolitionism in the abstract to practice it with the rifle to failed Irish revolutionaries like Thomas Meagher leading his countrymen to find a home in America with the price for citizenship being gallons of blood shed at Antietam. For the members of the USCT not only did they face mortal danger on the battlefield, if captured they could face summary execution like at Fort Pillow or they could be marched away from the lines into the Confederate heartland to be made into slaves. That freemen from Rockland County and escaped slaves would willingly take that gamble for America is truly astounding. I think for today one of the lessons is the level of civic engagement we see these men take up after the war. They funded schools and churches. They communed with each other in groups like the GAR and from these connections built civil rights organizations. In our current climate of isolation even pre-COVID our fraternal organizations are dying. How can we build a healthy society in a world that we exist in working and watching Netflix? Aside from that it’s a matter of pride, the graves of these men shouldn’t be forlorn in a parking lot. They should be visited on Veterans Day and Memorial Day. School trips should be taken to see them and hear their stories because they are inspiring. A level of engagement with the histories of our local communities makes for a more healthy country. Mount Moor Cemetery Association
(l-r) William Stump, Mount Moor Cemetery Association Vice Pres., Bill Batson, Pres. Ed England, and Spring Valley NAACP President Willie Trotman. To join our mailing list email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our facebook page. Towt was invited to take the pulpit at St. Philip’s that day by newly installed pastor, Rev. Charles Mayo. Thanks to Stump, we now know that Mayo’s final resting place is Mount Moor. Here is the short biography that Stump posted on the Sons of Veterans of the Civil War’s Facebook pagePrivate Charles Mayo of Company E 46th Regiment United States Colored Troops The fifth grave to be featured in JVC Stump’s graveyard survey of Mount Moor Cemetery in West Nyack is that of Private Charles Mayo of Company E 46th Regiment United States Colored Troops. During his service his name was spelled Maho. Mayo was born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia in 1833. He was sold at age 28, most likely “sold down the river” as two years later the Emancipation Proclamation found him in Helena, Arkansas. Slaves such as Mayo were sold from the upland south to the deep south sometimes in response to attempts to escape, the practice was known as being “sold down the river.” On April 17, 1863, Mayo enlisted in the newly raised 1st Regiment Arkansas Infantry Volunteers of African Descent, this organization was re-designated as the 46th USCT on May 11, 1864. In May of 1863, the unit marked into Louisiana to provide assistance with the Siege of Vicksburg, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. The danger the 46th was in is evident by the action at skirmish at Mound Plantation. Confederates attempting to disrupt the Vicksburg Campaign went on a massive slaving raid around Lake Providence, Louisiana. Outnumbered 10 to 1 at Mound Plantation on June 24, 1863, two companies of the 46th were captured and marched west into Louisiana and Texas and returned to a state of slavery. As many as 1000 freedmen were captured during the course of this raid. Though Mayo’s company was not one of those captured, the very real threat not only to his life in battle but to his freedom should he be captured would not have been far from his mind. The 46th spent most of the rest of the war on defensive duty in Vicksburg, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. In February of 1865 they moved to New Orleans and on to duty in Texas. The unit worked on the Brazos River in Texas and the gulf coast until January 30, 1866. Among the unit’s tasks were to prevent fleeing Confederates from making it to freedom in Mexico. Mayo’s obligation came to an end at the tiny village of Boca Chica, Tx. Charles Mayo moved to Nyack in 1872, first making a stop to marry Eliza his wife in Richmond, VA. Had he left her behind before being sold to Arkansas? These are the questions that are very difficult to answer a century and half later. Looking at census forms from the 1870s to 1900 and newspaper mentions, Mayo gave his profession as rag dealer and junk man. Here we see the threads that exist between veterans we have already discussed becoming evident, Benjamin Samuels was a successful trash hauler himself. In 1885 he was named chaplain of the Silliman Post #172 of the GAR, and there we see his true passion. Charles Mayo had been a member of St. Philip’s AME Church since his arrival in Nyack and in 1886 he was named Pastor. In 1887, the Independent Advertiser carried a note that Pastor Mayo was returning to the South to visit churches and relatives. Mayo was able to walk in a preacher’s garb through a town he once would have worn chains. St. Philip’s seems to tie all the veterans resting at Mount Moor’s lives together. The December 8th 1888 Rockland County Journal notes that Mayo served as best man for Frank Smith who married Andrew Cason’s widow Jane at St. Philip’s. Andrew Cason who we have discussed in another entry, was also born into slavery in Virginia before joining the Union army. In 1890, Charles Mayo was named Chaplain of the newly formed Africo-American League at St.Philip’s, Benjamin Samuels was Vice President. In 1897, he was awarded a disability pension for a unknown service connected injury. Charles Mayo passed away on August 28, 1908, aged 75, at his home at 13 Liberty Street in Nyack. From enslaved in Virginia, to emancipation in Arkansas, to service in Louisiana and Texas, to a community pillar in Nyack, New York, Mayo’s life was uniquely American. We honor his service and remember him. See also:
- Nyack Sketch Log: Our Segregated Cemetery
- Nyack Sketch Log: St. Philip’s AME Zion Church
- Nyack Sketch Log: John Towt House
- Nyack Sketch Log: Slaves and Civil War Substitutes Fought So You Could Vote
- SUVCW Camp #124 Col Augustus van Horne Ellis Facebook Page
See profiles of Civil War veterans as they are posted Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: St. Philip’s A.M.E Zion Church” © 2017 Bill Batson.