Mt. Zion Celebrates 140th Anniversary
In 1871, six blocks from the “hangin’ tree” on Front Street and twenty-two years before the first plank of the W.H. Stark House was hewn, on a little tree covered lot on the corner of 3rd and Cherry Street, construction began on the first African-American church for the city of Orange. In October of that year, a handful of black citizens came together with an idea. That idea became reality and Mount Zion Baptist Church was born.
It was five years after Texas had finally received the emancipation proclamation that officially freed the slaves. The newly declared citizens were still far from free. Poorly educated, if educated at all and often cheated out of wages or working for less than pennies an hour the idea of building a church would have been a daunting one at best. Still, that October, William Ruben, Peter Minor and Simon Jones formulated plans for a site selection and then contracted with Robert Russell. He along with four others, William Bill Edwards, John Williams, Boyud Scott and Arthur Robinson joined in the endeavor.
These seven men are said to have, untiringly, solicited funds as well as supplies. However, the ultimate acquisition to complete the building came through donations of lumber by two leading citizens, Lammie and Fellie Chivault. Out of these funds and donations came an 18 by 24 foot building. The rough lumber came to the property by ox cart and the shingles were handmade with a large knife. In a month’s time the building was ready for worship services sans windows.
For three months, Mt. Zion held services at this location unimpeded until a group of white youths, wanting to use the facility as a dance hall, shot out the small lamps that hung on the walls. Another group of white citizens finally informed Mt. Zion they could keep the building but it would have to be moved, at which time the structure was transplanted to Fourth and John Streets. Additional room was added and windows were installed. Here it was officially monikered Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church.
Since that small beginning, Mt. Zion has had many buildings. They have also held on through many storms, both literally and figuratively. The building that is in use today has been their home for worship since 1926. The congregation are faithful and loyal. In 1981, because of the efforts and two years of research to establish its history by sisters Zerlene Prater and Bessie Randle, the Texas Historical Commission placed a historical marker in front of the building located at 512 West John St .
In 140 years it has also seen about 30 pastors and changes that would boggle the mind of any simple man who pondered starting a church in the 1800s. The current pastor, the Rev. C.W. Crawford took the reins in December 1996.
“I gladly inherited the problems here and took them to heart,” said Crawford recently, regarding the many issues of pastoring a church that is aging in its facility as well as its congregation, “but in it all the Lord has blessed me to gain.”
As with most businesses, citizens or any entity in Orange County, many of those problems have risen from Hurricanes Rita and Ike. For Mt. Zion, the flooding took their lower floor and the parsonage, both of which are still under restoration.
“One of the issues we are dealing with presently is our elevator being damaged by Ike. We are still in need of funds for fixing it, as our sanctuary is on the upper floor.” Crawford admits that along with him came a lot of gifts and talents that would be needed in just such times. He has been a painter and roofer as well as a prayer warrior and advisor.
“Of course she (the building) has seen storm and rain both of life and other catastrophes,” said Crawford. He goes on to tell of her usefulness through the years as an established shelter from storm and a school house in the basement for elementary aged black students before desegregation.
The congregation itself has been active in the community in more ways than can be contained herein. In particular Mt. Zion has be a key for the poor and those who have housing issues or drug problems.
“The pay for that is the joy of seeing souls recycled,” declares Crawford who has had the honor of being a member of the board of the Housing Authority, “This city has benefited for 140 years as has the nation, because of Mt. Zion.”
As well as owning several properties in and around Orange, Mt. Zion is also the owner of The Hollywood Community Cemetery.
“We purchased it in 1875 for $37 dollars. Paid it off in monthly installments of $2 a month. Probably would have had it repossessed if it hadn’t been a cemetery. No one wanted property with dead bodies in it,” Crawford smiled as he said this.
Owning a cemetery has headaches of its own however.
Hurricane Ike caused dozens of caskets to pop out of their eternal resting spots. The costs of taking care of the remains fell on an already financially strapped congregation dealing with their own personal and church facility damage. A $30,000 grant was finally obtained for re-internment.
One hundred forty years cannot be covered adequately with simple words. There are new things on the horizon for Mt. Zion. Their annual anniversary is also used to commend three of their congregation. Among them this year were two young people who are stellar members in their faithfulness and lifestyles. The people have started a volunteer program of citizens that help with the upkeep of the cemetery.
“We plan to be here another 140 years,” declares Crawford simply. It is an idea a few black citizen probably didn’t conceive of all those years ago, but one that is certainly possible. In the words of their own,”Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church is the oldest Negro Church established in Orange, Texas and is proud of its heritage, proud of the men and women whose vision and courage, leadership and perseverance have brought to fruition 140 years of Christian service.