Preserving Culture and Worship: The Black Church in Appalachia

Religion and worship are ritualistic traditions that many in the Appalachian region continue to uphold in the face of a changing world. Some places of worship in Appalachian communities date back to the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries, and either are still used or stand as monuments cloaked in cultural history. During segregation, churches were often centerpieces of African-American communities, institutions for sharing faith, community and cultural history, as well as serving as staging points for civil rights in the face of a hostile social climate. In Athens, Ohio, Mount Zion Baptist Church is one such place. Completed in 1909, the church was built using donations from Edward Berry, a wealthy hotelier who operated the only Black hotel in the area. Berry and his wife, Mattie, donated the land and funds for the construction of the church. As recently as the early 1970s, it was home to a Black congregation of more than 200 worshippers. Since then the church, once a staple in the Black community, closed. Neglect and finance left the church, listed as a National Historic Place, in a dilapidated state. Recent efforts to save the church led to a grassroots drive among local organizations, including Chesterhill Multicultural Center, to restore the building. Using digital storytelling, this creative project will document the history of the church through the testimonies of surviving African-American members who were part of the original congregation. This project will illustrate the importance of the preservation of the historic structure, part of Appalachian history.