Goodwill African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Riverside is literally built around its past.
The two-story building, which today stands about a half-mile east of the traffic circle on Flanders Road, has been expanded — again and again — since the church was founded in 1873.
“They kept adding and adding and adding,” said current pastor the Rev. William Fields.
But hidden deep inside the structure are the remains of the original barn that sustained the church’s first, and predominantly black, congregation. It’s one of the few remaining reminders of an often overlooked part of local history: the experiences of Riverhead’s black residents in the early days of the East End.
Southampton Town officials recently honored that history by designating Goodwill AME Zion a historic landmark, the town’s 24th and the first in Riverside.
“We celebrate the Goodwill AME church today not for its architectural merit but for its special value,” said Sally Spanburgh, chair of the town Landmark and Historic District Board, at a Town Board meeting in early January. “For its contribution to the overall narration of this town’s social, economic, cultural and political evolution, and for allowing us to celebrate a more inclusive approach to preservation that recognizes all the facets of Southampton’s diverse history.”
The Rev. Fields said the church hadn’t considered seeking the historic designation and felt honored to be selected. During the meeting, the pastor said the recognition represented a big step for an African-American culture that, for most of its time on the East End, has faced discrimination.
“Our forefathers who are in the ground? If they could hear this they would be rejoicing, knowing what they had to go through,” the Rev. Fields said.
Named to acknowledge the generosity of the white women who helped the church set down its roots, Goodwill AME Zion is the oldest remaining black church in the Riverhead and Southold area, local historians say.
“From the beginning, all of the pastors were black,” the Rev. Fields said. The church became known for being on the “other side of the tracks,” attracting the poorer black and Native American families who often walked to Sunday services.
AME Zion churches are a branch of historically black Methodist churches formed by Christians in the early 1800s in response to discrimination from other parishes.
The Rev. Fields said many who began worshiping at Goodwill have since founded or joined other churches of different denominations after leaving the area. Other nearby AME Zion churches include Clinton Memorial AME Zion Church in Greenport and St. Paul AME Zion Church in Quogue.
“Relocation,” explained the Rev. Fields, who has served at the Riverside church for 13 years. “Death. Almost all of us are seniors.”
The creation of Goodwill AME Zion in 1873 was a watershed moment for the area’s black residents, who until then didn’t have a place of worship to truly call their own.
Local historian Richard Wines, who recommended landmark designation for the church, said black residents in the 18th and 19th centuries arrived in the area either as former slaves or as servants from New York City who came to work in East End lodges and hotels.
Before Goodwill AME Zion was founded, the lives of local black residents were poorly documented, he said. Newspaper clippings rarely mention black residents, he said, noting that the papers of record catered to affluent white audiences.
“It’s part of a history that’s overlooked by basically everyone,” Mr. Wines said.
Evidence can be found that black parishioners attended other churches, such as Wading River Congregational Church, before Goodwill AME Zion’s creation. But Mr. Wines said records show they were “banished to the balcony” there.
Later church records make no mention of where those black members ended up, but they clearly left the Wading River congregation.
“There’s a long history of African-Americans living here but very little physical evidence,” Mr. Wines said. “There are no houses, there are no landmarks; there are very few gravestones. It’s a population that was really poor. They show up in the census, but … in essence, they were invisible.”
Goodwill AME Zion in Riverside, he said, is one of the few vestiges from that time period that documents the presence of Riverhead’s African-American population.
“It’s a physical reminder that these people were here and were an important part of the community,” Mr. Wines said. “When we do know of something like this, we should learn about it and celebrate it.”
Goodwill AME Zion’s congregation has dwindled from its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, the Rev. Fields said. The congregation has halved since he arrived and now has just 28 members.
But the church is far from dead, the pastor said. In recent years, some former members have returned to the area and rejoined the congregation.
“Now it’s coming back,” the Rev. Fields said from inside the sanctuary, where wooden pews silently face south toward the humble altar. “Some of the children are coming back home.”
With the historic designation, the Rev. Fields said the church is also considering opening its doors on off-days for residents to tour the building. The structure’s landmark status is also an opportunity for people to meet the “loving, kind and very supportive” parishioners at Goodwill AME Zion, he said.
“A church is its people,” the Rev. Fields said. “We have a fellowship and we walk together.”
The church may not be hamlet’s only official historic place for long. Janice Young of Flanders, the landmark board member who nominated the church, said the honor comes at an auspicious time, given the ongoing revitalization effort in Riverside.
“I’m hoping that it will be one of several landmarks in Riverside,” she said.
If that holds true, Goodwill AME Zion will once again be a trailblazer.