ATHENS, Ohio — The historic Mount Zion Baptist Church, founded 150 years ago this year, was celebrated Jan. 28 at the annual meeting of the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society.
The event, held at the nearby Southeast Ohio History Center, featured a keynote address on the church’s history and its ties to other important aspects of Black history from Uzoma Miller, an Ohio University visiting professor of Africana media and global Black arts.
Attendees in person and over Zoom also heard updates on fundraising, building and historical projects of the society. The society is working to develop the Uptown Athens church building — which it says is the only extant structure built by Black people in Athens County — into a Black cultural center.
In 2019, it underwent a planning process with the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design after being awarded funding by the National Endowment for the Arts. Those discussions resulted in a document with plans centered around three points: a gathering space, a knowledge hub and a site of heritage tourism. Final plans include an on-site café, event space and digital learning space. Eventually, the society plans to acquire the adjacent home of Edward and Martha Berry—prominent Black business owners who donated land to build the church—and convert it to a museum and living space.
For now, the development work focuses on the careful removal and preservation of the church’s stained glass windows, which are also the highest foreseeable expense, according to Leslie Flemming, the society’s treasurer. Once that is completed, the society can begin repairs to the building’s basement, using a $75,000 grant awarded in 2021.
The society plans to launch a $4 million capital fundraising campaign next year to develop the building for the planned Mount Zion Black Cultural Center.
Board members Vibert Cambridge, OU media arts professor emeritus, and Trevellya “Tee” Ford-Ahmed, media relations professor emeritus at West Virginia University, provided updates on programming. These included contributing expertise to the OU Tantrum Theater original production “Hotel Berry” and a project with Athens Middle School students called Quarters for Freedom, and partnerships like David Butcher’s People of Color Museum in Stewart, the Multicultural Genealogical Center in Chesterhill and the Athens Middle School’s Andrew Jackson Davison Club.
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Trailers for the society’s “Black Wall Street” documentary series also aired. The first part, which premiered at the Athena Cinema in Feb. 2022, is currently touring film festivals.
The society awarded two Beacon of Light Stakeholder Awards to Ron Luce, former executive director of what was then called the Athens County Historical Society, who was a founding member of the preservation society, and Athens City Planner Paul Logue, who was credited with helping the society write multiple successful federal grants.
The departure of some board members was announced, including vice president Susan Urano and board member Cherri Hendricks (Urano is also vice president of the board of Southeast Ohio Independent News, the Independent’s parent organization).
Board members Marlene Jenkins and Carmesha Smith were said to be taking temporary pauses from the board, according to president Ada Woodson Adams. Four new board members were announced, including Henry Woods, a founding member of the society.
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