By Jamila Brathwaite
The St. Charles African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church today stands on Valentine Road in Sparkill, New York. In 1897, the church was rebuilt in its present location; however, in the mid-1800s, free blacks and former slaves built the original church near the Rockland County line in Harrington Township, NJ, atop the Palisades.
William Thompson, a laborer, lived in the small African American community, referred to as Rockland Neighborhood officially and as Skunk Hollow by the locals. Blacks living there simply called their home the Mountain. Thompson purchased the freedom of his wife Elizabeth who had been enslaved in the New Jersey area. Just a short distance away in New York, slavery was abolished in 1827, but the state of New Jersey maintained the peculiar institution until 1865. Skunk Hollow was officially the home of 75 people and encompassed land that include today’s Palisades, Piermont, Sparkill and Closter.
In 1841, Thompson bought land from a man named Jack Earnest, one of the early black settlers of the community. By 1856, William and Elizabeth deeded a small portion of the land, a 50 x 50 feet plot to the trustees of the “Methodist Episcopal Church of Colored People of the Township of Harrington.” William Thompson became its minister and supported religious life within the community of Skunk Hollow.
After William Thompson’s death in 1886, the community began to decline after a 100-year existence. Opportunities outside of the mountain community encouraged residents to relocate throughout Bergen and Rockland counties. Members from Skunk Hollow would build the new church in Sparkill and name it the St. Charles A.M.E. Zion Church.