Through the Years: A brief history


In 1918, a small gathering met at the home of Mrs. Melvina McCaw at 330 Cowper St., Palo Alto, with one purpose in mind. They wanted to establish an African Methodist Episcopal Zion church in Palo Alto. 

Ultimately, they formed what is today, Palo Alto’s oldest black church. The hopeful group also included Jennie Moore Bass, Maude Natis and Mr. Isaac McDuffy. They formed a Mission church at first and worshipped downtown at Fraternal Hall on High Street and later in Ostrander Halls upstairs in a Bank of America building. 

In 1922, wishing to have a church building, but unable to secure a loan on their own, an outpouring of financial and moral support rushed in from generous Palo Altans. The next year, enough money had been raised to purchase the property at 819 Ramona. A successful fund drive produced $1,264.00 and the cornerstone for a brand new University A.M.E. Zion church was laid on April 25, 1925. The cost of the building was $6,000.00 – half of it acquired by fund-raising and the remainder covered by a mortgage. With the help of many groups such as the Shriners, Kiwanis and Rotary, as well as voluntary citizen donations and favorable editorials in the local Palo Alto Times, enough money was raised to burn the mortgage July 8, 1939.

The congregation thrived for four decades – from 1925-1965 – before deciding that it was time for a new home. On July 4, 1965, groundbreaking ceremonies were held at the present Middlefield Road site and the $65,000 sanctuary became a reality in January 1966.

But a challenge lay ahead. In the 1980s, the historic old church on Ramona street faced demolition. Much credit goes to historian Ruth Anne Gray, granddaughter of a co-founder and Trustee, Isaac M. Hinson, who led the fight to save it. The old church had a brave, sweet story and was a widely recognized symbol of a developing tradition of multi-racial and multi-ethnic unity in Palo Alto. Through Ruth Anne Gray’s leadership, the Palo Alto City Council in 1980 designated the building as part of the city’s Historic Inventory. Six years later, it was listed on the California Register of Historical Resources. 

Today, the original building, which was incorporated into a development project on Ramona Street, holds business offices. As a protected historic building, it continues to represent the sacrifice, dedication and courage of its members and their diverse, caring community.

On October 10, 2009 the University A.M.E. Zion congregation held a moving service in the cherished old church to honor its legacy and to celebrate its rebirth.