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In pursuit of spatial justice, advocates work to preserve an Athens Black church

Light shines through a stained glass window in a church. Paint on the walls is peeling away.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
The Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society has started a years long process to renovate the church, starting with removing and restoring its stained glass windows.

The stained glass windows that adorn the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Athens are covered in paper thin cracks.

They’re so fragile, one shattered earlier this year, when March rushed in like a lion.

Still, the intricate design and striking size of the windows offer a glimpse into another time — a time when the Black community in Athens was booming and when Ada Woodson Adams was just a child.

“In 1939, when I was born, segregation existed in Ohio and surrounding areas of Athens County. And so the Black church was the center of Black life,” Woodson Adams remembered.

Her family attended church in Nelsonville, just northeast of Athens, but every now and then, they’d make the trip to Mount Zion, where 12-year-old Ada set her sights on the indoor baptismal.

“My experience in growing up at my first church in Nelsonville, everybody went down to Hocking River to get baptized,” she said. “And so I talked my mother into allowing me to be baptized at Mount Zion.”

How the Mount Zion Baptist Church came to be

The Mount Zion Baptist Church held its first service in the basement in 1906. It was built to accommodate a growing and increasingly prosperous congregation.

Like other settlements across in the Ohio River Valley, Athens’ Black population swelled in the 1850s.

Many stayed, pursuing jobs in brick building and coal mining, and among the first things they built were churches.

“Between 1850 and 1860, there was an explosion of Black churches,” said Beverly Gray, a local historian and the director of the David Nickens Heritage Center in Chillicothe.

Around this time, one of the country’s first Black-owned and operated schools opened nearby, as did Hotel Berry, a well-known Black-owned hotel.

“The African American and its culture was very much a part of the Athens County situation,” Gray said. “People of color owned businesses, and oftentimes there was some money available.”

Things were going so well by the turn of the century, the Black community built Mount Zion Baptist Church on a prominent uptown street corner, with splendid windows.

It’s where Ada Woodson Adams got married.

But then, like many of her Black neighbors, she left.

“We couldn't get a professional job in [the] Athens area or Athens County area or Ohio for that matter,” she said. “And so we had to move to a larger city and we ended up in Chicago.”

By 1970, less than 3% of Athens' population was Black.

Hotel Berry was eventually demolished, and Mount Zion’s congregation shrank to just 10 members.

It’s a story familiar to Tee Ford-Ahmed, who grew up across the river from Athens in Ward, West Virginia.

“We had a huge population there at the time, and like so many other settlements where Blacks were, it was destroyed,” Ford-Ahmed said. “The church there, that was older than this, was torn down to accommodate a post office.”

It seemed like the Mount Zion Baptist Church was destined to meet the same fate.

Preservations and Renovations 

By the mid-1970s, legend has it church elders were ready to give up on Mount Zion Baptist Church.

But Reverend Francine Childs, an Ohio University professor and Civil Rights activist, stopped that from happening.

“She reorganized the few Blacks that were left in Athens to encourage students to come to Mount Zion to create a choir,” Ada Woodson Adams recalls of Childs. “She said she had never been in a church, a Black church, that didn't have a choir.”

Childs organized a 100-person choir, the Gospel Voices of Faith, and kept the church’s services going. Still, Woodson Adams said, it struggled to make enough money to be self-sufficient.

Two women with blue disposable gloves stand in front of a stained glass window in an old church.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Lindsay Jones (left) and Ariana Makau (right) start the process to remove and restore Mount Zion's hundred-year-old stained glass windows.

Eventually Woodson Adams took over. After returning home to Athens, she rallied community members like Ford-Ahmed and others. Together, they formed the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society and have been working for years to develop a plan to renovate the building.

This September, those plans are becoming a reality.

“There’s a gap up here, so hopefully that’ll come out really easily,” said Conservator Ariana Makau, pointing to a small hole between a stained glass window and the church’s wall. She’s leading a team to carefully remove the hundred-year-old windows.

They’ll restore and preserve them, as the society starts a years-long project to convert the church into a cultural center.

“Nowhere in this area do we have anything to represent the Black cultural experience,” Woodson Adams said. “Now Mount Zion Black Cultural Center will be representative of that.”

The space will tell a history of Black people in Athens, including their social, educational and spiritual experiences, Woodson Adams says.

It’ll also serve as a performance venue for Black students looking to perfect their craft, with the goal of making the Mount Zion Baptist Church the center of a thriving Black community once again.

“I sometimes think that I was called to come back to Athens because my ancestors knew that they needed someone to finish the job they started,” Woodson Adams said. “That is to maintain the monument that they built as a spiritual guide, a beacon of light, not only for the Black community but for the world, to say, ‘Yes, we're here. We're going to stay here.’”

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.