National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

National Register of Historic Places Program:
African American History Month Feature 2012
Mount Zion Baptist Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.

 

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Mount Zion Baptist Church
Photograph courtesy of the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office

Rebuilt after the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, Mount Zion Baptist Church, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, stands as a historic symbol of the local African American community. The commitment of the Mount Zion Baptist Church parishioners in Greenwood (a neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma) to rebuild their church, destroyed the year it was dedicated, in 1921, displayed both their tenacity in the face of adversity and their hopes for the future. In 2005, a National Park Service Reconnaissance report concluded that the Tulsa race Riot was of “supreme national significance, perhaps the most significant race riot in the history of the United States.” Most of the historic resources directly associated with the riot were destroyed during the event, and many of the resources from the post-riot reconstruction period were destroyed by Urban Renewal efforts after the 1970s. Greenwood was known nationally for its cultural and financial achievements which rivaled New York City as a national center of urban African American life.

Most African Americans migrated to Oklahoma from Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, looking for a better life. Some were brought there as slaves by various American Indian nations during the “Trail of Tears” (1831-1838), when the United States federal government removed the Choctaw, Seminole, Creek, Chickasaw and Cherokee American Indian Nations from their original lands to what would become the State of Oklahoma. Many African Americans did find a better life in Oklahoma. In African American towns such as Red Bird, Tullahassee, Boley, Rentiesville and Taft, African Americans became successful business entrepreneurs and managed their own community affairs. J.B. Stafford and O.W. Gurley were successful African American entrepreneurs in Tulsa before the city was segregated, and believed African Americans could pool their resources for success.

[photo]
Mount Zion Baptist Church
Photograph courtesy of the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office

Both J.B. Stafford and O.W. Gurley brought tracks of land north of the Frisco tracks, had it platted and sold them to African American families. By 1906 the African American area was named Greenwood. The community had an unusual number of African American professionals and businessmen—doctors, lawyers, ministers, dentists, real estate agents, newspaper editors, and merchants. By 1921, this successful community had access to a hospital, two schools, two movie theaters, a public library, two newspapers, 13 churches and three fraternal lodges. Greenwood became a mixed African American and European American community.

A prelude to the race riot began on May 31, 1921, when an African American man, Dick Rowland, allegedly assaulted a white girl, Sarah Page. The outbreak of violence that this incident stimulated resulted in the near complete destruction of the Greenwood African American neighborhood and business district. With no police or fire department protection, by June 1 whites had burned nearly 30-40 blocks of homes and businesses, and nearly 9000 individuals were left homeless. The American Red Cross reported that out of 1471 houses, 1256 were burned and the rest looted. Both African Americans and whites were killed, but the majority of deaths were African American. There was little left of the African American community; churches, commercial buildings, homes, hotels and boarding houses had all been destroyed.

Perhaps there was no more glaring reminder of the riot to the African American community than the remains of the Mount Zion Baptist Church.  The church was first organized in 1909, as the Second Baptist Church in a one-room, wood frame school building. The members renamed their church “Mount Zion.” In 1914, the church moved from the school to a former dance hall on North Greenwood Avenue, and then with the help of a builder, the congregation built a frame structure they called the Tabernacle on Eigin Street, while they planned to build a more permanent church next door. In 1916, construction of a new church began and five years later, on April 4, 1921, the church was dedicated. A symbol of determination and the growing affluence of the congregation, the church members raised money to construct the church, and they received a $50,000 loan from an individual for construction.

[photo]
Mount Zion Baptist Church
Photograph courtesy of the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation Office

When the riot erupted in May 31, 1921, the church played a significant role as African Americans defended their community. Whites started a rumor that this church and others were warehouses for arms, and that Mount Zion had housed “the Bolshevik element of the Negroes who are responsible for the outbreak.” The building did provide a location where, from the tower, African American men could drive away whites intent on burning surrounding homes. Eventually, some whites brought a machine gun to the church, and some of the defenders were killed. Mount Zion Baptist Church, less than two months old, was burned and most of the building destroyed. For the congregation, however, it was significant that a kernel of the burned church remained standing. The walls of the first floor meeting room would become the congregation’s temporary church, and the temporary church would be integrated into the 1948-52 building. The congregation was determined to rebuild.

It took tenacity for the African American community to rebuild in Greenwood, but Greenwood once again became a thriving African American  business and entertainment community, although separation between the African American and white communities remained almost complete until well after World War II. The Mount Zion Baptist Church paid off its debt in 1942. Mount Zion’s construction efforts began in 1938, and in February 1945 Time magazine did an article on the rebuilding, and the story was picked up internationally. Soon donations came to the church rebuilding effort from all over the world. Members sacrificed financially to see that the church was finished. Some members donated money, as retied minister Dr. C.S. McCutchen noted, to their own financial strain. The church corner block was laid in 1948, and the church was dedicated on October 21, 1952. The congregation is still active at present. It has remained a landmark and symbol of the Greenwood neighborhood’s and church’s persistence to survive after the riot.

The three-story church is late Gothic Revival architecture (c. 1948) and constructed of buff-colored brick veneer over concrete block. Part of the original 1921 brick church remains at the ground level, although it is not distinguishable from in or outside. The church plan is cross gable (like the gable roof, but it has two parts that cross), though the north and south façade gables are shortened compared to those of the east and west. The moderately steep roof is shingled in asphalt. The gable end walls and flat-roofed church towers have high parapets finished with stone coping and the stained glass windows were made in Germany. Mount Zion Baptist Church is located six-tenths of a mile north by northwest of downtown Tulsa, on 419 North Elgin East Avenue. The Church is in its original location, and its design, form, plan, space, structure and style have retained integrity. Mount Zion Baptist Church was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on September 5, 2008.

Excerpts from the National Register Documentation for the Mount Zion Baptist Church, Tulsa County, Alabama (Cathy Ambler, Ph.D., Preservation Consultant, Mount Zion Baptist Church NRHP Nomination, Oklahoma SHPO, September 5, 2008)

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