Extra: If Walls Could Talk at Mt. Zion AME Zion Church in Montgomery
After years of disrepair, leaders share new efforts to restore Mt. Zion A.M.E. Zion Church
There’s a new effort to breathe life into a landmark Montgomery church that for decades has fallen by the wayside.
Mt. Zion A.M.E. Zion boasts of being the backdrop to pivotal moments in the civil rights movement, though the building itself has struggled to survive. The church was once a pillar in the community that’s been quietly crumbling for years; but leaders seem more confident than ever that brighter days are on the horizon.
Parts of the 1990 movie, “The Long Walk Home” were filmed at Mt. Zion, though you wouldn’t recognize the now gutted and seemingly forgotten building from the big screen.
Long-time member Charles P. Everett IV has been helping lead the efforts to save and restore the historic church. Its facade stood watch as the caravan on the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march trekked by. “My father-in-law Joseph Brown was standing there he was one who was in the march but he had gotten tired” Everett explained, standing in front of a historical marker outside of the church. Mt. Zion was the the last place marchers stopped for rest before pressing forward to the state capitol.
Just 10 days after Rosa Parks chose to stay seated on a city bus –sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott–the Montgomery Improvement Association’s first meeting was held on the church’s ground level. “26-year-old Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King (Jr.) was elected president of that organization, his very first role in the modern Civil Rights Movement” said Everett.
There are still plenty of members at Mt. Zion who remember what worship was like in the building on South Holt Street, before the congregation moved to its current location a few blocks away on West Jeff Davis Avenue in 1990.
Erma Loman shared some of her fondest memories saying “I grew up in the church as a little girl, singing in the children’s choir”. Anthony Baine recalls the church’s rapid decline when it was sold to another church and eventually abandoned. “My grandson who is 18 now, he used to call it the fall down church…’grandpa the church is falling down it’s got holes in the top!'” he said.
In a 2007 interview with Alabama News Network, leaders hoped the church would be selected as the the location of Montgomery’s Interpretive Center on the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail, but Alabama State University was chosen instead.
In a 2013 follow-up, Everett shared plans to make the church look as it did in 1955–the year of the famed meeting. That Mt. Zion A.M.E. Memorial Annex is still in the works seven years later. “The project has taken so long because god wanted to teach us a lesson in patience” said Everett, “the money for preservation is a whole lot more than building a new building. $500,000 for the new building, but over a million and $500,000 already to preserve a historic landmark.”
In 2018, Mt. Zion was awarded a $500,000 federal grant that’s been the catalyst in making that long-time plan more possible than ever.
Sommerville Hill of Brown Studio Architecture, has been apart of the long-time restoration since the early stages. “We’ll focus all the resources on the downstairs, bring people into the old fellowship hall, the fellowship hall is actually where the meetings happened” Hill explained. For now, the upstairs sanctuary will stay untouched and downstairs transformed into a museum. A step back in time, all the way down to the bathrooms that the marchers used in 1965.
If funding allows, Hill said, “we’ll begin to work on the upstairs windows and bringing the outside church back to what it would have been in the 1950s and 60s” using as much of the original material as possible; which comes with it’s own set of challenges. “You can only know what you can see, so there’s a component of this sort of building where you have to go in and peel away layers so you know what the situation is so you can go back and fix it…and that’s tough to anticipate on the front end of the project” he explained.
Layers, like a portion of exposed wood in the sanctuary that dates back to 1899. “If these walls could talk” Everett says “they would say that this building has come and gone many an evolution that they have witness the miraculous work of God”.
God willing, Everett says, the Mt. Zion A.M.E. Memorial Annex will prayerfully come to fruition by December 5th at 3:00 –the exact date and time of the Montgomery Improvement Association’s first meeting in 1955.