Inside Mt. Zion Church

File photo by John Halley

The inside of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Athens is seen in this 2017 file photo.

By Cole Behrens

The Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society announced Saturday that the historic Athens uptown church had received a $75,000 grant to continue the restoration of the building’s basement and place it on “solid ground” toward full restoration.

According to a release, Mount Zion Baptist Church was awarded the funding through the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund grant offered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Mount Zion Baptist Church served as the key gathering place for the Black community of Athens and Southeast Ohio from 1905 until the 1990s, according to the Preservation Society’s website.

Between 1905 and 1909, a community of free-born and formerly enslaved Black Americans built the Mount Zion Baptist Church as a place of solace, according to the website. The building, which stands at the intersection of Carpenter and Congress streets in uptown Athens, is one of few remaining examples of Black American architecture in Southeastern Ohio.

“The $75,000 awarded to the Preservation Society will be used to rehabilitate Mount Zion’s basement and set it on solid ground toward becoming a regional Black Cultural Center in Southeastern Ohio,” the release said.

Over the past four years, the National Trust has funded 105 historic places connected to Black history and invested more than $7.3 million to help preserve landscapes and buildings imbued with Black life, humanity, and cultural heritage, according to the funds website.

This year’s funds were awarded to places and organizations that help the Action Fund protect and restore significant historic sites. Grants are given across four categories: capacity building, project planning, capital, and programming and interpretation, according to the release.

Mount Zion Baptist Church is one of four churches nationwide to receive funding this year, Religion News Service reported. In an interview with RNS, the grant program’s Executive Director Brent Leggs said preserving Black churches was imperative to preserving the Black cultural legacy.

“The four churches represent the through line of the role of the Black church in the Black community,” Leggs told Religion News Service in a phone interview. “They’re spaces that support the religious health of the Black community, but they’re also safe havens and spaces for community programs that uplift the broader culture.”

In the past three years, the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society has received four grants to fund the restoration project.

In 2020, the Preservation Society received a $25,000 Ohio History Certified Local Government awarded to the City of Athens on Mount Zion’s behalf based on an 89-page building assessment report that was completed by the Columbus-based Hardlines Design company.

The assessment report put the restoration costs at $2.8 million, the release said.

Also in 2020, Mount Zion was awarded the Central Appalachian Network Seed Learning Pilot Project $20,000 grant. The purpose of this grant was to begin telling the story of the efforts to save the building through a documentary titled “Black Wall Street Athens County.” The film is currently in production with Athens-based Ben Street Films.

In 2019, The National Endowment for the Arts granted the first award in Ohio through the Arts Endowment’s Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design program to Mount Zion, a release said. With $10,000 in grant funding, the Washington, DC based TBD Studio completed its “Citizens Institute for Rural Design Book.”

The firm documented discussions about Mount Zion’s future through a series of workshops conducted among a myriad of community groups. The $10,000 funding effort gleaned the vision for what Mount Zion’s Black Cultural Center could become, according to a release.

The most recent grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation represents only a small share of the total money doled out as part of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

“It’s critically important that the public invests in the restoration and transformation of Black landmarks to tell a fuller American story and build a national identity that reflects America’s diversity,” Leggs said.

Since its inception in 2017, the fund has raised nearly $30 million, due to primary support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Ford Foundation, according to the fund’s website..

The fund nearly doubled in size in 2021 due to a significant gift by philanthropists McKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett who announced a $20 million grant to the Action Fund.

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