The proscenium arch at the Childs Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ, a remnant of the Harlem building’s days as a theater.Credit…David W. Dunlap/The New York Times
“Here — at this final hour, in this quiet place — Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its brightest hopes — extinguished now, and gone from us forever,” the actor Ossie Davis said on Feb. 27, 1965, over the coffin of Malcolm X, a transcendent lightning rod among African-American leaders who had been assassinated by gunmen six days earlier.
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Now the hour has come to bid farewell to the place itself: the Childs Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ, originally the Bluebird Theater, on Amsterdam Avenue near West 147th Street. It is, indeed, quiet.
The congregation has moved its services to a storefront space at 500 West 148th Street. There are no longer any pews in the 600-seat auditorium. The chandeliers under which Mr. Davis spoke have been removed for safekeeping.
Darnelle Watts, who identified himself as a minister of the church when we met last week, said the future held demolition and then construction of a 10-story apartment building at the north end of the 125-foot-long site. A new two-story church is planned for the south end, with a sanctuary, a dining hall, classrooms and a chapel that would incorporate the architectural artifacts of the current church.
Mr. Watts deferred to the pastor of the church, Kevin Griffin, on questions such as who would build the project. Telephone messages left for Mr. Griffin were not returned. (The city’s Buildings Information System shows no demolition permit for the site.)
The funeral for Malcolm X in 1965, at what was then known as the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ. The church hosted the ceremony after other local houses of worship declined.Credit…Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times
“We’re going to build a stronger and a better church,” Mr. Watts said. “Within a year and a half, we should be back.”
But there was no disguising his sorrow that the 95-year-old building, with all of its memories, would be lost in the bargain.
“We tried for years to keep it up,” Mr. Watts said. “The roof wasn’t as strong as we thought. When you fixed one hole, another one opened up. It just became one hole too many.” The sanctuary was abandoned six months ago, he said.
What brought me there was an alert from Michael Henry Adams, the perennially beleaguered but indefatigable defender of Harlem landmarks, official and otherwise. (Childs Memorial Temple is not a designated landmark.)
By the time I arrived, the west memorial windows of the church had already been removed. But the east windows — dedicated to Mother Elizabeth Burgess, Irene Roland, LuLa Robinson, Alvara Clarke and Deacon Willie Quick — were still in place.
The building, on Amsterdam Avenue near West 147th Street, was a synagogue at one point in its varied, 95-year history.Credit…David W. Dunlap/The New York Times
So was the Bluebird’s elegant proscenium arch, draped in lyrelike ornamental scrolls, painted gold, and framed by balconies faced with golden swags.
“What can be done?” Christopher Moore asked in an email, after I told him what was going on. Mr. Moore, a former member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, helped curate the 2005 exhibition “Malcolm X: A Search for Truth,” at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library.
He answered his own question: Move the proscenium intact to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, which is scheduled to open this year, or to the New-York Historical Society, the Museum of the City of New York or a new theater.
One might reasonably wonder how the funeral of an American Muslim leader, known not only as Malcolm X but also as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, came to be held in a Pentecostal church that was once, in its varied existence, a synagogue.
As 1965 began, the most prominent Muslim place of worship in New York was Mosque No. 7 of the Nation of Islam, at Lenox Avenue and West 116th Street. Malcolm had been an eminent leader in the Nation of Islam until 1964, when he repudiated that movement, led by Elijah Muhammad in Chicago. After that, Malcolm considered himself a marked man.
The scene outside Malcolm X’s funeral, which proceeded peacefully despite fears of violence. “Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its brightest hopes,” the actor Ossie Davis said in paying tribute to the slain African-American leader.Credit…Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times
Members of the Nation of Islam were suspected of killing Malcolm. Mosque No. 7 was firebombed the day after his assassination.
As thousands paid their respects to Malcolm at a Harlem funeral home, his followers searched anxiously for a church in which to conduct the funeral, the author Alex Haley wrote in the epilogue to “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” The famed Abyssinian Baptist Church, on West 138th Street, was among those that declined, he said.
Bishop Alvin A. Childs of the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ (later renamed in his honor) was the clergyman who finally opened his doors. He and his wife then received bomb threats at home and at church, Mr. Haley wrote.
But the hourlong funeral — conducted as a Muslim service, with Bishop Childs on the sideline — turned out to be stately, orderly and peaceful.
“It was Davis’s soliloquy on the meaning of Malcolm’s life to the black people of Harlem that captured the public’s imagination, and in subsequent decades would dwarf everything else that occurred that day,” Manning Marable wrote in “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.”
Here is how Mr. Davis concluded his valedictory, framed by the little proscenium arch whose future is now uncertain:
“Consigning these mortal remains to earth, the common mother of all, secure in the knowledge that what we place in the ground is no more now a man — but a seed — which, after the winter of our discontent, will come forth again to meet us. And we will know him then for what he was and is — a Prince — our own black shining Prince! — who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.”