ITHACA, NY (WENY) - The St. James A.M.E. Zion Church met with Cornell University's Archaeology and Material Studies department Saturday morning to begin their excavation project. Their project entails excavating potential artifacts and a secret tunnel linked to the underground railroad.  

The idea came about after old maps of Ithaca suggested a secret tunnel running underneath the Church grounds. Now, members of the Ithaca community are welcomed to join the church for the next 9 weeks in excavating the Church’s backyard.   

Signs of pottery and glass from the 19th and 20th centuries have been dug up so far.  

Pastor of St. James A.M.E. Zion Church Terrance King has a deep passion for uncovering the true history of his church and community. He expressed his desire to enlighten the Ithaca community on his church’s deep history.  

“We’re starting this excavation to uncover the stories of the past,” King said. “Ultimately, we’re just trying to share our story to the Ithaca community and the greater New York area.”  

Built in the 19th century, The St. James A.M.E. Zion Church is one of the oldest active A.M.E. Zion Church’s in the world. The church served as a shelter for activists such as Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Frederick Douglass. King stressed the significance of this being intertwined with Ithaca.  

“It is historic on a state-wide level, on a denominational-wide level, and we’re just excited to embark on this journey,” King said. “We just want to be able to share with the world, the richness that is yet a small church but an even bigger historic congregation.”  

Associate Professor of Near Eastern Studies Lori Khatchadourian is one of the professors leading the excavation. In enlightening her community, she beat to the same drum as King.  

“One thing that is very important to the Cornell archaeology community is that we are connected with our local community here in the town of which we live in Ithaca,” Khatchadourian said. “One of the things that makes this project so meaningful is that those at Cornell, students, and faculty who are involved, are bringing our skills to our own local community. It’s a new for Cornell for so many faculty archeologists to be involved in the study of a site here in our own town.”  

Following suit to King, Khatchadourian emphasized the significance of uncovering this history.  

“It was a place of safety and a place of communal activity; a beacon of social justice work in our community,” Khatchadourian said. “Anything we can reveal that can give specifics and details to that story will be in line with the stories the Church is trying to tell.”  

Both groups will now try to uncover the direct role the Church played in the underground railroad.