a century of prosperity
The Mount Zion Baptist Church served as the key gathering place for the Black community of Athens, Ohio from 1906 until the 2000s. Over the course of its rich history, the church supported countless members while also highlighting the contributions of African Americans in Southeastern Ohio.
Mt. Zion Baptist Church stands at the intersection of Carpenter and Congress streets in uptown Athens as one of few remaining examples of Black American architecture in Southeastern Ohio. The region was once nationally renowned for Black entrepreneurship, education, and community building. Between 1905 and 1909, a thriving community of free born and formerly enslaved Black Americans built the church as a place of spiritual solace and social connection. When its cornerstone was laid in a public ceremony on 12 November 1905, among the items placed within the stone were copies of Black Ohio newspapers. Their inclusion reminds us today, 115 years later, of the church’s important mission: to amplify the perspectives and accomplishments of Black Americans.
The congregation that built Mt. Zion traces its origins to the home of Joseph and Henrietta Miller, where a small group of Black Athenians started gathering for religious services in 1872. By 1876, the congregation had grown large enough to construct a wood-framed single room church on Lancaster Street. Formalized as the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in their new home, the congregation became known by the performances of their choir, the Athenian Jubilee Singers, at regional church festivals and conventions.
In 1902, church members started a fund to construct the larger building that stands today. Edward and Mattie Berry, church members who had gained national recognition as hoteliers, donated a corner lot uptown near their Berry Hotel as land for the new building. After construction started on the church in 1905, services took place in the basement as early as September 1906. The building was formally dedicated in 1909.
In 1974, when Dr. Francine Childs moved to Athens to join the faculty of Ohio University (where she became the institution’s first Black tenured professor) she encountered a dwindling membership of only ten congregants. To help rebuild Mt. Zion’s community, Dr. Childs spearheaded a door-to-door campaign and involved university students in a new choir called the Gospel Voices of Faith. As a result, congregation numbers swelled again to over 150 and the choir, which regularly featured anywhere from 35 to 100 university students, toured nationally.
In 1980, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NR 80002938) in acknowledgement of its status as an historical, social, and cultural landmark. “The Mt. Zion Baptist Church is significant,” notes the registry, “ as representing the only major building standing in the City of Athens associated with its Black community.” This is true not only of Mt. Zion’s role in the city, but also the County of Athens and the region of Southeast Ohio at large. Many of the area’s numerous Underground Railroad stations remain unidentified, and sites associated with prominent Black-owned and operated schools (e.g. Albany Enterprise Academy, established in 1864) and businesses (e.g. Berry Hotel, established in 1892, demolished in 1974) are identifiable only by historical markers.
Throughout the 20th century, Mt. Zion functioned as a vital education hub for members of the Black community. Bible classes and choir rehearsal provided spaces free of cultural prejudice and racial discrimination, where Black congregants could develop, hone, and expand their thought, speech, and voice. Despite its fluctuating membership, Mt. Zion has nurtured an environment of Black worldmaking and identity formation that continues to inspire and propel hope.
In 2013, a group of community members formed the Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society with the mission of restoring the building, which after decades of neglect had become endangered by mold, foundation damage, and other structural and environmental issues. In 2016, the Society became a 501(c)(3) certified non-profit organization recognized by the State of Ohio as title-holding stewards of the building and property. Leaders during the Society’s founding years included Ada Woodson Adams, Ron Luce, Linda Philips, and Henry Woods. Today, in 2020, the Society continues with its mission rooted in spatial and racial justice, the goal of which is to preserve and celebrate the landmark building as a cultural, social, and economic asset for the region.
A small group of Black Athenians gather for religious services at the home of Joseph and Henrietta Miller.
Services held in a wood-framed single room church on Lancaster Street.
During the 1880s and 90s, before the new church building was constructed, baptisms took place in the Hocking River (Athens Messenger, 25 April 1895).
Church members Edward and Mattie Berry donated a corner lot in an underdeveloped part of uptown Athens as land for the new building. The Berrys were renowned entrepreneurs, having built, owned, and operated the Berry Hotel from 1892 to 1923. Their historic building was demolished by developers in 1974.
Ground-breaking ceremony on September 12 (Athens Messenger, 21 September 1905)
Starting in September, church services were held in the basement of the new building (Athens Messenger, 8 September 1906).
Building formally dedicated in a three-day ceremony in September (Athens Messenger, 25 September 1909).
Bible classes and choir rehearsals provided spaces free of prejudice and discrimination, where Black congregants could develop, hone, and expand their thought, speech, and voice. The choir is seen here during the 1930s.
Cab Calloway and his orchestra visited the church when they came to Athens to perform at the Ohio University Junior Prom on March 20.
Gospel Voices of Faith choir established under Dr. Francine Childs, as part of a resurgence of the congregation (Spectrum Green, Ohio University Yearbook, 1976).
Building added to the National Register of Historic Places in acknowledgement of its status as a historical, social, and cultural landmark. Access the nomination form in the National Archives. (Kathleen Andrews, photographer, February 1980)
Gospel Voices of Faith places 2nd in Gospel Fest, held in New York.
Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society formed. Founding members included Ada Woodson Adams, Ron Luce, Linda Philips, and Henry Woods.
Society selected by the National Endowment for the Arts as one of three partner communities to work with the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design.