Mount Zion Baptist Church, Albany Georgia

Date added: October 14, 2022 Categories: Georgia Church
Side and rear facade (1994)

Mount Zion Baptist Church was first established December 8th, 1866, when Rev. R.R. Watson and a group of followers organized the Mount Zion Baptist Church congregation in Jerry Watson's blacksmith shop Dec. 8, 1866. Mount Zion Baptist Church is the first African-American Baptist church formed within the original city limits of Albany Georgia.

An examination of Freedmen's Bureau records reflects that as early as December 1865, two buildings at Wooten Station were to be moved to Albany for church and school house. While not stated in records, it is inferred that these structures became the Baptist and Methodist worship houses. A fair to benefit both churches of freedmen was held May 30, 1866, at Jerry Walters' blacksmith shop. Both black and white citizens were invited.

According to William E. Montgomery, author of Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree; The African-American Church in the South 1865-1900, two distinct types of churches, formal and folk, emerged in black Christianity. Mount Zion Baptist Church emerged as an elitist church, with members representing the privileged class whose characteristics included greater wealth, higher education, and more skilled occupations than the lower class that made up folk churches. Wealthier African-Americans formed churches that resembled Caucasian churches with fancy exteriors (and) opulent interiors. The architecture of the Mount Zion Church exemplifies this trend.

A history of Mount Zion Baptist Church contained in working papers of the 1930s Work Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Writers Project locates Jerry Walters' blacksmith shop at the corner of State Street (now Highland Avenue) and Jackson Street. Services were held there for more than six months when the membership outgrew the shop and a lot was purchased on the corner of Washington Street and Highland Avenue. The amount raised to erect the church was $2,600, but before it was completed it was blown down by a storm. A decision was then made "to move the church to another place."

The WPA history and the Freedmen's Bureau records describe details of two houses moved in the spring of 1867 from Leesburg, by Col. O.K. Howard of the Bureau, one of which was placed on the current Mt. Zion church site. It is reported March 29, 1867, that Albany has "two good churches that can be used for school houses," and April 1, 1867, bureau records report that M.W. Early opened a free school in the Baptist church.

The Bureau budgeted $1,600 to repair the two churches for school buildings June 1867, and one month later black carpenter Henry Cook claimed an incumbrance on the Baptist church he was building at 72 South Street. A year later, on August 25, 1868, this lot was purchased from Joseph S. Smith by the "colored Trustees of the Colored Baptist Church of the city of Albany County of Dougherty" at a cost of $150.

Freedmen's Bureau records reflect the structure at 72 South Street, (now W. Whitney Avenue) was used as the Worchester School taught by American Missionary Society teacher Lucy E. Case beginning November 1868.

The first association of which Mount Zion was a member was the Middle Georgia Association, and in 1870, was among churches obtaining letters of dismissal from the association for the purpose of organizing the Georgia Baptist Southwestern Association.

In 1894, Rev. N.B. Williamson became the church's second pastor and conducted a city school in the church. Due to the increased attendance Mrs. M.L.G. Copper was employed as an assistant.

The third pastor, Rev. T.J. Simpson, served while the church house was torn down in 1905, and the extant brick church was built in 1906. During the construction, worship was conducted in the Supreme Circle Hall for nearly a year. The building was constructed by church members.

Sometime during the service of Rev. W.J. Jenkins, 1916-1925, the extant church was remodeled, "the walls beautified, new lights installed, steam heat and new seats added." During his pastorate existing church debts were paid. Church records prior to the late 1930s have been lost. Oral histories with church members suggest that the baptismal pool was added during this renovation since octogenarian members recall the pool existing since their childhood.

In 1932 the church was badly damaged by a storm and services were held in the Masonic Hall. The church was repaired in June of the same year. On Jan. 12, 1935 a pipe organ was purchased and installed.

In July 1972, the use of the 1906 church for worship ceased with the completion of a new church building located in south Albany.

Mount Zion Baptist Church and The Albany Civil Rights Movement

Mount Zion Baptist Church served as the site of the first mass meeting of the Albany Movement, Nov. 25, 1961. Members of the Mount Zion congregation who held leadership positions with the Albany Movement were Dr. William G. Anderson, C.B. King, Slater King, Marion King, A.C. Searles, and others.

Mount Zion Baptist Church derives historic significance as the site of mass meetings featuring national civil rights figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph David Abernathy, Andrew Young, John Lewis, Wyatt Tee Walker, and others.

Mount Zion Baptist Church derives significance as the site of the first performance at a mass meeting by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's newly formed Freedom Singers. The Acappella style of singing spirituals and freedom songs began with the Albany Movement. This group later toured nationally.

"On Thanksgiving weekend 1961, African-American activists decided to test a recent Interstate Commerce Commission ruling on desegregation by using the whites-only facilities at the Trailways bus station in Albany, Ga. Their actions catapulted this southwest Georgia community of 56,000, 40 percent of whom were black, into national prominence. Albany became, in the early 1960s, both a catalyst for similar student-initiated actions, particularly those by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and a symbol of organizational factionalism, especially regarding the role of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in the ensuing 'Albany Movement.' On 22 November 1961, SNCC workers Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon, along with a group of black students from Albany State College and the local NAACP Youth Council, sat down in the whites-only section of the Trailways terminal and refused to leave. Following their expulsion a coalition of local black organizations and student leaders began a coordinated attack on Albany's strict color line. Internecine squabbling among the participants prompted King to make an appearance in Albany, but he left without achieving the real or symbolic victories that earlier had won him national acclaim. The mass protest continued for another six years. Although King would call Albany his most glaring defeat, the actions there galvanized SNCC workers into a stronger commitment to direct action campaigns and ushered in a new era in civil rights in which black spirituals, such as 'Ain't Gonna let Nobody Turn Me Around,' were sung defiantly in the face of white oppression." "The failure of King's Albany, Georgia, [campaign], during 1961-1962, led to revised nonviolent tactics which, in 1963, challenged segregation in Birmingham, Alabama."

The Albany Movement organization was officially formed Nov. 17, 1961 in a spontaneous meeting of black community leaders at Slater King's home. Dr. William G. Anderson was selected as president, with Slater King as vice president. The Albany State College students participating in a bus station sit-in were arrested Nov. 22, 1961, and the first public mass meeting of The Albany Movement was held Nov. 25, 1961, at Mount Zion Baptist Church. It was during this meeting, at which Anderson, Slater King, attorney C.B. King, and newspaper publisher A.C. Searles spoke, and the SNCC Freedom Singers first performed. The song leaders of local teenagers Rutha Harris and Bernice Johnson, together with SNCC worker Cordell Reagon, first led the acappella style of freedom songs which would become a trademark of the national Civil Rights Movement.

Within a few weeks, Southern Christian Leadership Conference freedom riders would arrive at the Albany's Union Depot and be arrested for disorderly conduct before a crowd of about two hundred onlookers. The arrests touched off a week-long period of nightly mass meetings, protest marches and mass arrests, ending in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s first speech making, and his first arrest, in the city. These arrests marked the country's first significant mass jailings of the Civil Rights Movement. Within a seven day period, more than 700 of Albany's blacks were jailed.

Michael H. Chalfen, in his May 1993 work "The Way Out May Lead In: the Albany, Georgia Civil Rights Movement 1945-1965," outlined three major periods in the movement. The preclassic from 1945 to 1961; the classic from Nov. 1961 to Aug. 1962; and the postclassic from 1963 to 1965. "The [Albany] Movement employed the entire range of protest that was to be used during the civil rights era: voter education and registration, litigation, song, economic boycott and self-help; and direct action.

Primary to the Albany Movement was the use of mass meetings conducted at various churches in Albany and Dougherty County. Most of these mass meetings were conducted at Mount Zion Baptist Church, and Shiloh Baptist Church, properties which face one another on West Whitney Avenue. Because the mass meetings would draw overflow crowds, particularly those conducted in December 1961 and the summer of 1962, the doors of the churches would be opened and the crowd would fill the street in between the churches. When Martin Luther King, Jr. first spoke in Albany, he would alternate between the two churches, each time speaking to a new crowd. Third Kiokee Baptist Church, in south Albany, also was used for mass meetings.

The impact of the movement led to associated civil rights activities in many southwest Georgia towns including Americus, Sumter County; Dawson, Terrell County; Leesburg, Lee County; Newton, Baker County and Sylvester, Worth County.

The activism of the Civil Rights Movement continued for years following 1962, although the formal "Albany Movement" organization disbanded prior to the official end of legal segregation in Albany in March 1963.

In 1990, members of the Mount Zion Baptist Church formed the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Committee to prepare a National Register nomination for the 1906 church building. In 1993, the committee received a Survey and Planning grant from the Georgia Historic Preservation Division to prepare a preservation plan for the church. In 1994, the committee received a Georgia Heritage 2000 grant to rehabilitate the church building for use as a Civil Rights museum.

Building Description

The Mount Zion Baptist Church is located at the corner of West Whitney Avenue and Jefferson Street in Albany, Dougherty County, in south Georgia.

The church is a 1906, one-story, red-brick building with Late Gothic Revival and Romanesque Revival style detailing. The exterior is rectangular-shaped with a pressed-metal gable roof. The front gable facade features a parapet wall, portico with large archway supported by two brick columns, double-door main entrance with semicircular transom window, brick and concrete steps, and two square towers of unequal height. The towers are topped with eight-sided metal spires and brick and concrete battlements. The larger tower has four arched openings and served as the bell tower. Arched entrance doors are also located in each of the towers. Decorative brick ornamentation, rowlock, arched brick windows, stained-glass, brick pilasters, and chimneys remain, as well as gable, tower, and foundation vents.

The rear of the church has a c. 1930s brick addition built to house the pipe organ and a c. 1960s concrete block storage/bathroom addition. The common-bond, red-brick 1930s addition has a hipped roof with the same pressed metal shingles as the remainder of the building. On each side of this shed addition are anteroom entrances to the rostrum of the church. Each entrance has a brick articulated cornice, concrete steps, and wood-paneled doors.

Three small square brick chimneys remain. These chimneys served the wood-burning stoves used for heating prior to installation of steam heat radiators. A small basement mechanical room containing a boiler for the steam system is located directly under the southeast anteroom.

The floorplan features a large rectangular sanctuary, two bell tower rooms, anterooms next to the rostrum, and a rear balcony. A baptismal pool is concealed under the raised pulpit flooring. The rostrum is framed by pilasters and a cornice. Interior elements include original wood floors, a cove ceiling with decorative pressed metal, simple wooden pews, plaster walls, wood moldings and wainscoting, cast-iron radiators, balcony support columns, and paneled doors.

Use of the church continued until 1972 when the congregation relocated to a new facility in south Albany.