Blackwell Church Celebrates 130 Years

The Blackwell Chapel AME Zion Methodist Church will celebrate its 130th anniversary as the first African American church in Chautauqua County. The “Catherine D. Harris Celebration Dinner and Comedy Show” will be hosted tonight at the Crystal Ballroom at Hotel Jamestown in honor of Harris, who operated a station of the Underground Railroad in Jamestown. Submitted photo

Blackwell Chapel AME Zion Methodist Church at 610 Spring St., Jamestown is celebrating its 130th anniversary.

As the first African-American church established in Chautauqua County, Blackwell hosts a strong history of members, starting with founder and former slave Catherine Dikes Harris, who operated a station of the Underground Railroad before setting up her church.

Harris helped slaves escape from captivity as one of the few female conductors of the Underground Railroad. She helped slaves secretly pursue freedom on their route to Canada. Her station was operated out of her home at W. Seventh St., where a historical marker now stands.

In honor of her life, the “Catherine D. Harris Celebration Dinner and Comedy Show” will be hosted this evening at 5 p.m. in the Crystal Ballroom at Hotel Jamestown, located at 106 W. 3rd St. Gospel comedian Tim Shropshire will perform. Shropshire is known for opening for many headliner gospel acts.

A community choir consisting of members from various local churches will sing at the event. Raffle baskets can also be won at the celebration. Some baskets were donated by SKF and Sandee’s Catering: Bakery and Deli.

The Catherine D. Harris Civic Award will also be presented to an individual for her civic and community contributions. Previous recipients include Vivian and Lula Taylor, who were a Jamestown City Council member and Chautauqua County legislator respectively, in 2015 and Anita McDonald in 2017.

As co-founders of the Chautauqua County Black History Committee, the Taylors displayed a look into black history at Blackwell Church years ago. They had shown how African Americans had been integral to the history of the county from 1792 to 2001. Lula Taylor died in March of this year.

The Taylors’ efforts are still helping the church prosper. Church volunteer Catherine Harrison is working on a project with materials and photos collected by the Taylors, so Harrison can apply for Blackwell to be recognized as a historic landmark by the New York State Department of Preservation. The project has been more than a year in the making.

“I’m more excited because I’m working on the preservation of the church,” Harrison said.

As one of the event organizers for Blackwell, Harrison has put a lot of time into preparing the celebration dinner and comedy show. She also helps with the organization of the church’s Baby Cafe, which provides training for breastfeeding mothers and new mothers to take care of their children. The program also educates mothers about the impacts of opioid use on mothers and their unborn children.

The church member to receive the civic award from the community will be revealed tonight. One member was chosen to receive the award after multiple nominations had been received.

“It was very nice of the response we got,” Harrison said.

While the recipient of the award will not be revealed until tonight, Regina Brackman, president of the church’s board of trustees, said she thinks the person is very deserving the of the recognition.

“She’s done some amazing work,” Brackman said of the recipient. “She’s truly been a blessing to the church.”

Brackman said she was proud of her congregation and how people from a fairly small church could bring in a well-known comedian and host an event of such caliber.

“It speaks a lot to what’s going on in our community,” Brackman said. “It’s been a great time working on this project.”

The Rev. Reginal D. Smith Jr. leads Blackwell in worship. As a small church, Blackwell has been on the rise since Smith has undertaken his role, Harrison said. Some descendants of Harris attend the church to this day.

“We love (Smith); he’s just wonderful,” Harrison said.