Preserving a Legacy
Over a century ago, Edward C. and Martha “Mattie” Berry donated land and money to establish the current location of Mount Zion Baptist Church at 32 W. Carpenter St. The Berrys, who were well-known bakery and hotel owners in Athens, hoped to expand the small church. Mount Zion quickly became a beloved location for the black community to gather in Athens, but it has since fallen into such a state of neglect that it is no longer functioning.
“The black community interacted with all other black churches, whether it’s Baptist, Methodist [or] Presbyterian,” says Ada Woodson Adams, vice president of the Mount Zion Preservation Society. “We helped each other out and supported each other.”
Adams grew up in Nelsonville, Ohio, and attended the First Baptist Church there. She also had the opportunity to attend Mount Zion with family members who lived in Athens. As a girl, Adams made the decision to be baptized at Mount Zion and was later married in the church as well.
Adams says the contributions of the black community in Athens have been diminished over the years and are at risk of being erased completely. She uses the example of Berry Hotel, which was owned by Edward and Mattie Berry, and stood in the same spot where Court Street Diner now stands. The hotel was demolished in 1974.
Over the past 20 years, Mount Zion’s congregation dwindled. In turn, the building was neglected so much so that it has been rendered unusable. In addition to a rotting roof, which has since been replaced, the deteriorating walls caused water damage and the woodwork around the windows and doors rotted. The basement floor caved in and the entire interior was vandalized.
“The average person doesn’t really feel invested in the buildings and the history that is all around them,” says Ron Luce, treasurer of the preservation society. “I think that at any point along the way, had there been enough interest, groups of people could have come and saved that building before it got into such a terrible state of [disrepair].”
Luce refers to American culture as “throw-away culture,” meaning that society has become used to getting rid of things that become run down after use. He believes that this is another reason Mount Zion became so neglected.
“You go over to Europe and you see buildings that have been standing there for four, five, six hundred years, and they’re still being used and they still have a purpose and they show the design of an era and give a sense of history all by themselves just by their standing there,” he says. “In this country, we don’t really think that way yet, and we really need to appreciate those things.”
Despite all of this, there is something about Mount Zion that is entrancing, which is why Adams and others founded the Mount Zion Preservation Society. The society is dedicated to raising funds and awareness for the church in the hopes of restoring it to its former glory.
“There’s something truly remarkable about the interior of the building,” Luce says. “Even though the paint is flaking off and it smells bad because of the mold and mildew and you can’t stay in there very long … there’s something so peaceful, so calming, so serene about sitting in that space.”
The Mount Zion Preservation Society was unofficially formed in 2013, without any board members or executive offcers, just as a group of people with the common goal of wanting to restore the historic building, Luce says.
“I noticed right away … there wasn’t very much in the way of black history in the [Athens County Historical Society Museum] in my opinion and I felt there needed to be more,” Luce says. “I had the good fortune to meet Ada Woodson Adams and she and I collaborated on the notion that we needed to have a lot more black history because we weren’t telling the whole story of the development of the community.”
At the time, the building was a mystery to Adams, Luce, their attorneys and the city. Nobody was sure who owned the building, so there was no clear way to try to take ownership of the site. Eventually, the attorneys were able to find the woman who had unofficially claimed ownership of the building, and Luce submitted a claim with the state for ownership.
After three years of battling for ownership, the case was taken to the attorney general’s office. On July 25, 2017, Luce and Adams officially took possession of Mount Zion. Adams was established as vice president, Tom McGuire, one of the original members, as secretary and Luce kept his 2013 role as treasurer. Luce says it was important to the team to establish black leadership for the society and once they did, efforts to restore the building could begin.
Since then, the preservation society has received many donations from community groups, including the Charles G. O’Bleness Foundation, the Athens County Foundation, the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio and the Ohio University Foundation.
Cherri Hendricks, the recently elected president of the Mount Zion Preservation Society, says that the fundraising was slow at the beginning, but she can see progress being made.
“[The executive board] actually moved this thing from a place of inertia where there was no movement to where it is now,” Hendricks says. “I think that as people see things are happening there will be more interest and people will be more inclined to donate or volunteer or just come out with their ideas and help us be successful.”
In addition to its other historic qualities, Mount Zion serves as a time capsule of the history of the black community in Athens.
“This church was built by people who were barely out of slavery,” Hendricks says. “… These are descendants of those people. These are enslaved people who had a hope and a belief and they built something tangible and to see that go into decline or be torn down, like the Berry Hotel uptown, to have our history and our contributions to this area totally removed and mitigated, is not acceptable.”
According to Adams, Mount Zion is one of the last monuments of black culture and black history in Athens. It is important to preserve sites such as Mount Zion so that future generations will have something tangible to connect themselves to history.
“This is what we’re trying to do: tell the story of the people who were involved in building the church and also in the black community,” Adams says.
Although Mount Zion’s significance is deeply rooted in its history, the current state of the church is also integral in representing the black community. In fact, many aspects of the restoration process today mirror that of the initial construction of the building.
“We’ll ask people for money, we’ll throw in whatever we can on our own and we’ll just keep believing we can make it happen,” Luce says about the fundraising process. “That’s how the world gets done. That’s actually the way the building was done in the first place; the black folks in the community wanted that church, they threw in whatever they could find, they went out, they asked for the support of the white community … that’s kind of the attitude that we have to have is if the community wants this, they’re gonna have to support it.”
The fact that Hendricks is now president of a society that wants to restore a historical church takes on additional meaning, given her family history.
“My grandmother built a church [when I was] a child,” she says. “I find it highly ironic that I’m building a church, or rebuilding a church, and so I’m very excited because I feel like it’s the place where I’m supposed to be and it’s where I’m supposed to use my efforts … and I look forward to what’s gonna happen in the future.”
When enough funds are raised and the building is finally restored to its former beauty, Mount Zion will serve as a multipurpose building for the black community of Athens. A worship space will still be offered to those who wish to practice religion in the building, but it will also be a gathering space. Adams says she hopes Mount Zion can become a space for businesses and university organizations to meet and host events.
“I think that the church can serve as a center to pull African American community members in,” Hendricks says. “There are places for other groups to meet, [but] there is no place for the people in the [black] community here to meet or discuss things or just hang out, especially if you’re not part of Ohio University.”
The Mount Zion Baptist Church not only represents the history and contributions of the black community in Athens, but also serves as a way to look to the future of the community. African Americans have contributed to the evolution of Athens as a community, and the preservation society strongly believes that their legacy cannot be pushed aside.
“I am a real believer that if you wanna understand history, you have to understand it from multiple perspectives, not just white American,” Luce says.
The black community in Athens had a profound impact on the culture and way of life in the town, but it has been forgotten over the years.
“There were lots of people in this community who made contributions whose names are lost, whose contributions are lost … the history of this church was almost lost and we’ve had to reconstruct a great deal of that … and kind of resurrect that history,” Luce says. “I think it’s important to know and I think it’s important for people a hundred years from now to know that there were these folks who lived here one time … and the church, in their case, had to be the center of their existence because they weren’t welcome into other parts of the community.”
In Luce’s opinion, Mount Zion’s very existence serves as proof the story is being shared with the greater Athens community.
“We’re telling the culture of black America from the standpoint of a small community that appreciates those people who were here, their stories, their contributions,” he says. “To me, it is a symbol of commitment to equality and a sense of appreciation for those people who are too often overlooked and underappreciated.