ITHACA, N.Y.—On Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, the St. James A.M.E. Zion Church commenced an archaeological dig to help further detail the church’s role helping the Underground Railroad free escaped slaves.

At 9 a.m., the Rev. Terrance King, pastor of St. James, spoke to those in attendance at the church, followed by other local speakers—Dr. Adam Smith and Dr. Gerald Aching of Cornell University; Dr. Anna B. Kelles, State Assemblyperson representing the 125th district; Ducson Nguyen, Alderperson of Ithaca’s 2nd Ward; and Elder Derrill Blue of A.M.E. Zion Church. Mabel Welch, a member of St. James, sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” to the congregation.

At 10 a.m., King broke ground for the excavation outside the church, which having been built between 1833 and 1836, is the oldest religious structure in Ithaca.

The project will last nine weeks, with digging being done on Saturdays from Sept. 18 to Nov. 13. Participants include Cornell students and faculty, as well as local schoolchildren. At least 30 people are taking part in the project in various capacities, not including the schoolchildren.

Dr. Laurie Khatchadourian, an Associate Professor of Archaeology at Cornell who is directing the excavation, encouraged St. James members and other people in the community to take part in the project, saying she would like as many community participants as can be accommodated, and that it is not too late to get started.

“All are welcome to visit,” Khatchadourian said. “Over the course of the next eight weeks, we will be here every Saturday, and we encourage folks to come.”

King said he would appreciate it if the community could pray for the project, refer youths between the ages of 12 and 17 who have an interest in archaeology, or provide donations.

The project first was conceived in 2017 through collaboration between Rev. Paris Price, King’s predecessor as pastor for St. James, and Cornell professors and doctors in African American studies. In the summer of 2020, Larry Brown, a professor of Geophysics at Cornell’s College of Engineering, performed a ground-penetrating radar scan and found anomalies in the ground next to the church. Smith, along with Khatchadourian, performed a test excavation this summer and unearthed artifacts such as ceramics and glass.

King said the project is significant as a way of telling the story of Ithaca, St. James and everyone who played a role in history, especially with regards to freeing the slaves.

“American history is African-American history,” King said, “and St. James being the oldest active church in denomination, and being pivotal in the Underground Railroad, we think that it’s very important nowadays to share that story.

While addressing those who came to the event, King mentioned that  Khatchadourian had told him she had found a dinosaur at the church, much to King’s surprise, until she showed him the toy dinosaur she had found. Khatchadourian then said that even a toy dinosaur was a significant find that could provide insights on the people of the past. Khatchadourian later mentioned that she had brought the dinosaur to the church’s Fellowship Hall that day, drawing laughter from the crowd.

King said the project is a way of helping make history relevant to the youth of today.

“They need to know that not only is it in the pages of their books, it’s actually in the actualization of life and things they can get connected to,” King said.

To King, St. James A.M.E. is not only a part of Ithaca’s history, but is also a relevant part of the community today, something he hopes the people of Ithaca will come to understand.

“I want the community to take away from this project that St. James is a live, vibrant church that still exists and has the power it had 188 years ago, when it was first created,” King said.