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Mt. Zion AME Church studies its past to prepare for its future

By Don Coble don@claytodayonline.com
Posted 5/4/23

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Having just concluded its 150th anniversary, Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church feels the best way to look ahead is to delve into its past.

What started as a way to …

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Mt. Zion AME Church studies its past to prepare for its future


Posted

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Having just concluded its 150th anniversary, Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church feels the best way to look ahead is to delve into its past.

What started as a way to satisfy grant guidelines became a passionate exploration of old documents, newspapers, artifacts and memories. What the church has uncovered will help it better understand its path for the next 150 years.

“What we were finding is that all of the grants, they wanted to know the history of the church,” said Rev. James Pernell. “The church was good at keeping a history of pastors who had the appointment in charge, but they were not good at keeping the history of the church in terms of growth and development and how it impacted the community.”

So Dr. Cheryl Gonzalez started digging.

She’s spent days pouring through records at the Clay County Archives. She’s scoured books to find leads that will help fill the gaps in the history of the first Black church in the county.

“Every answer leads to new questions,” Gonzalez said. “We keep finding new things, and our history becomes even more fascinating when we do.”

The assignment has been both daunting and exhilarating. Records from the Black community, especially after the Civil War, are sketchy and incomplete. A lot of records were lost when a fire destroyed the original church.

“Back then, they didn’t have a fire department,” Gonzalez said. “If something caught fire, it usually burned down.”

One of her most exciting finds was learning that Edward Fells, a former city councilman and constable in Green Cove Springs, was a member of Mt. Zion around the time the church opened in 1873. Fells and his wife, Cornelia, had 14 children – the seventh who was Augusta Savage, one of the most influential artists in the world.

The church also uncovered artifacts from the church’s first service, including silver teacups, an engraved platter and a pitcher.

Another amazing fact is that three Blacks and six whites founded the church in 1873, and one of the white founders once served with the Confederacy.

Much of Gonzalez’s research also involves the history of the Dunbar School and Dunbar High School, the only all-Black school in the county that eventually closed in 1967.

Portions of the old school are now the Augusta Savage Arts and Community Center.

“I look at my background in diversity, equity and inclusion, involving compliance investigation,” Gonzalez said. “I look at the mediation side with different people with different opinions. The bottom line is there are gaps in the information available. So one of the first things you want to do is fill the gaps in the data and information you find; what are people saying; and what can you do to match what they’re saying to the closest extent possible.”

The church raised $18,000 during its sesquicentennial celebration. Most of it will be used to rebuild the parsonage. Rev. Pernell said the parsonage would be home to meetings, gatherings and a community center.

Some of the money came from producing 1,000 guides that spell out the Black history of Green Cove Springs and Clay County.

He also envisions the church will again be the spiritual focal point for the city.

“Not only the fact that both whites and blacks founded the church, but this has been a central factor of spirituality throughout Green Cove Springs.”

Gonzalez has collected the names of all 48 pastors in the church’s history. The church also recognized nine members who were 78 or older during its 150th anniversary, including 99-year-old Alice Williams and 87-year-old Rev. Elaine McBride.

“So we honored those living members who have been connected to Mount Zion for a long time and still living and play some sort and roles today, so we wanted to show them love and appreciation for their sacrifice.”

And in the process, maybe they can help fill some of the gaps in the church’s 150-year past.