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Mount Zion Baptist Church began as a vision of a small group of Black Athens residents, formerly enslaved people and the descendants of enslaved people who began meeting in 1872.
According to a timeline from the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society, the group began meeting in 1872; by the early 1900s, the group had over 200 members. Construction of the church began in 1905 on the west side of Athens, and the building was formally dedicated four years later.
For decades, the church occupied an essential social, educational and spiritual space in the lives of Black residents of Athens and Southeast Ohio.
In the 1970s, though enrollment had fallen significantly, the award-winning student choir Gospel Voices of Faith formed at the church. In 1980, the congregation submitted a successful application to have the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the 1990s, “internal friction” led to the eventual dissolution of the congregation by 2000, according to an Athens News report. Its final service was a funeral in the mid-2000s.
In 2013, local residents including Ada Woodson Adams — who was a member of the church as a child and young adult, and is a founder of the Multicultural Genealogical Center in Chesterhill — began organizing to ensure the preservation of the site by adaptively reusing it.
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After years of attempting to gain control of the building, the group in 2016 sued a former local resident named Cinseree Johnson, who claimed to hold the deed. The Ohio Attorney General’s office ended up transferring the deed to the society.
In 2019, the group was one of only three organizations that year to receive funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to undertake a resource assessment and future visioning process with its Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design.
The resulting document, built on research conducted by an Ohio University business class, set forth both the site’s historical significance as well as specific goals for the preservation society. These include restoring and preserving the impressive masonry, stained glass windows and sanctuary, and making other structural repairs to ensure the building is safe for future reuse.
Repairs are estimated at $5 million, according to the society’s communications director Trevellya Ford-Ahmed. In 2021, the society received $75,000 in funding for repairs to the basement, which was noted as a particularly pressing issue in the CIRD report. The roof received $72,000 of repairs in 2018.
Potential future uses centered around three points: a gathering space, a knowledge hub and a site of heritage tourism. Examples of other nationwide adaptive reuse projects of historic Black buildings included the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago and the Nina Simone Project in Simone’s rural hometown of Tryon, North Carolina.
The ultimate plans for the church included a performing arts space, a café and a digital learning space. The plans also included a historical exhibition space in the Berrys’ old home behind the church, which is separately owned.
“There is a need for spaces for Black people they feel is for them,” the CIRD report quotes a local resident as saying at a public planning meeting. “We used to have these spaces, but not anymore.”
The 2019 planning document also noted the church’s placement within what Athens city government has begun calling “Heritage Square.” The square includes the Southeast Ohio History Center, also housed in an historic church, and the old Athens Armory, which is currently undergoing renovations for future use as a coworking space.
In January 2023, according to Ford-Ahmed, the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society will begin a capital fundraising campaign with a goal of raising the $5 million needed to complete renovations and open the church to the public.
Learn more about the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society at mountzionathens.org.
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