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At Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church fundraising session, sobering racial tension emerges

The concept of an auction to get the fundraising rolling salted some deep historic wounds when one African-American attendee felt the auction process harkened back to the auction blocks of slavery.

Great Barrington — A fundraising meeting Saturday (November 19) convened at the Mason Library for the purchase and restoration of the first African-American church in Berkshire County unexpectedly exposed the charged issue of how to sensitively preserve elements of African-American history in a predominately white rural area. The historic African-American Methodist Episcopal Zion Church is the sanctuary where W.E.B. Du Bois worshipped as a boy.

At one point during the meeting a fundraiser’s strategy to encourage donations was likened to slavery auction blocks; at another, the racial makeup of the church’s preservation leadership was questioned.

The mid-1800s-built Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church is about to fall apart if it isn’t quickly secured for the winter – mold has ravaged it and the roof needs total replacement. A small volunteer group of citizens stepped forward last month to save the building, which has been on the market for several years after closing its doors. A recent deal with another party to buy the property for $119,000 fell through, but now the volunteer group has the place under contract through the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire (CDC) along with donations of money, time, materials and office space.

In just two and a half weeks since the call went out for help, the group’s coordinator, Ed Abrahams, said the sellers, Eastern Conference A.M.E. Zion Church, gave permission to fix the roof, and four contractors said they would do it for free after being asked by Maia Conty, Generosity Economy Community Organizer. Herrington’s donated the materials, Taylor Rental is donating a lift, and the lead contractor – Steven MacLeay of Sacred Oak Homes – is donating his services.

Local property owner, developer and CDC board member Richard Stanley put up the deposit to purchase the building and donated some money and office space.

Abrahams said $27,000 is either pledged or in hand, and about $100,000 needs to be raised quickly in order to buy it and shore it up for winter.

To make the place useable, Abrahams added, will cost around $200,000. But to bring it to Secretary-of-the-Interior standards will run from around $600,000 to $800,000.

The church is on the National Register of Historic Places and is an important site on the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail.

Fran O’Neill lives across from the church and was a congregant for 50 years. She spoke to Ed Abrahams about fixing up the historic church building, and now the church is on its way to restoration. Photo: Heather Bellow
Fran O’Neill lives across from the church and was a congregant for 50 years. She spoke to Ed Abrahams about fixing up the historic church building, and now the church is on its way to restoration. Photo: Heather Bellow

“The next step is to create committees to flesh out the mission and develop what’s going to happen in the building, and what level of renovation,” Abrahams added.

Many say they want to see it made into a museum to honor native African-American scholar, writer and civil rights leader, W.E.B. Du Bois.

Multicultural BRIDGE President Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant attended the meeting, and later told The Edge in an email that, after the building is patched up, BRIDGE would love to see a leadership circle evolve into people “directly connected to the legacy and family of Du Bois, former pastors…family, neighborhood, scholarship and heritage.”

VanSant said South County has “denied Du Bois his due respect over the years in ways that this could repair,” noting that an attempt to name Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School, built in 2005, after Du Bois had met with controversy and failed. She also said it was important to unite the mission and vision of the church restoration to the spirit and wishes of former congregants like Fran O’Neill, pictured above.

Gwen Van Sant in her Muddy Brook Elementary School Multicultural BRIDGE office.
Gwendolyn VanSant in her Muddy Brook Elementary School Multicultural BRIDGE office.

Right now, former A.M.E. Zion congregant Wray Gunn will be president of the board of the new group, and his wife, Cora, will also be involved. VanSant said she would like to be part of the leadership as well, and that her “personal vision is that the space be vibrant again with celebrations of African-American heritage, religious holidays,” and for people searching for Du Bois’ heritage and that of this church, and a “sacred space” for “African American writers, thinkers, historians and everyday folks piecing together what our American history has even allowed us to know.”

“We are losing Black churches in South County,” she added.

Seasoned fundraiser Philip Deely is helping to pull money together to purchase the church building and begin to renovate it. He is working out off office space in downtown Great Barrington donated by Richard Stanley. Photo: Heather Bellow
Seasoned fundraiser Philip Deely is helping to pull money together to purchase the church building and begin to renovate it. He is working out off office space in downtown Great Barrington donated by Richard Stanley. Photo: Heather Bellow

Philip Deely, a Stockbridge native and former history teacher at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, had read about the plight of the church and said he would donate his fundraising skills to the effort. Deely told The Edge that, over the years, he has raised around $70 million, including money to build the Normal Rockwell Museum. He was asked by Abrahams to sit on the board of trustees.

He said he did what he often does to loosen up the tension and get the funds rolling: a Dutch auction. He started by asking if any of the 30 to 40 attendees had $100,000 to give, then worked his way down until someone raised their hand.

But the concept of an “auction” salted some deep, historical wounds, and things took an angry turn, said an attendee who declined to be identified.

Deely said one African-American attendee felt that the process harkened back to the auction blocks of slavery.

“She expressed herself directly to me,” he said. “I was deeply listening to what she said,” and told her the offending use of the auction concept was “unintentional.”

Abrahams said the process came to a screeching halt. And Deely said he spoke to the woman after the meeting.

A leaky roof in need of replacement has ravaged the church, which is full of mold. Photo: Heather Bellow
A leaky roof in need of replacement has ravaged the church, which is full of mold. Photo: Heather Bellow

“I was sobered by her reaction,” he said. “It didn’t make me angry, it made me think. I thought it was a really good meeting. People said: this is the stuff that has to come out. We have to deal with the reality of race language and style right away. We have to be tremendously sensitive going forward.”

Abrahams said he and organizer Beth Carlson have made it clear from the beginning that they are simply trying to start the process and are ready to hand the project and its mission development over to groups and people, particularly African-Americans. Already, he said, Wray Gunn is president of the board. And Abrahams had asked VanSant to be on the board or even to have her or someone from the African American community take on the project. Neither Wray nor Cora Gunn could be reached for comment.

“Anyone who wants to be involved, raise money and have a say is more than welcome,” Abrahams added, noting that he has tried to expand the email list. “I’m excited that there is this kind of passion and I hope everyone who came to the meeting continues to participate,” he added.

Deely said the meeting was important in so many ways. “It really doesn’t matter whether you’re in Berkshire County or Mississippi,” he said. “The question of race is still a real one.”

For more information and to contribute to the preservation and restoration of the Clinton A.M.E Church in Great Barrington, click here.

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