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Monday, July 18, 2005

Historical donation

DADE CITY - A 102-year-old worship hall owned by the local Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church congregation soon will join other historic buildings at Pioneer Florida Museum and Village, giving the museum its first showcase piece of regional black history. "I think it's a wonderful idea," said the Rev. Cora E. Hill, who has been a member of the congregation for 70 of her 76 years. "Most of our history is lost. It will be one piece of history that younger people can go back and visit." Scott Black, a museum trustee and Dade City commissioner, is equally excited: "I think it's going to be an ideal addition to the museum collection of buildings. We have needed, for some time, to reflect the black community." The church congregation has wanted for at least a couple of years to donate its fellowship hall, a wood-frame building next to its white brick sanctuary at 14440 N. Seventh St. The stumbling block was finding the cash to relocate the building to museum grounds, just north of the city on U.S. 301. The museum recently learned it qualified for a $21,500 historic preservation grant from the state to help with the costs of moving and restoring the hall. The actual move probably will start in the fall, said the Rev. Cedric E. Cuthbert, who became the congregation's pastor in May. A previous pastor, the Rev. Nathan Mugala, first suggested the idea of donating the old fellowship hall. The congregation worships in the larger, also historically significant, white brick sanctuary on Seventh Street, and needs the room for a modern fellowship hall. Still, "it didn't make sense to destroy" the fellowship hall, Cuthbert said. It simply breathes history. The hall was constructed in 1903 by congregation members, local records indicate. At the time, the church had 29 congregants. In 1884, the local congregation began receiving visits from itinerant ministers assigned to a circuit encompassing Dade City. The preacher would visit church members in a community known as Freedtown, which sat about four miles south of Dade City and was settled in 1869 by newly freed slaves, according to local research conducted by Black. A citrus freeze in 1894-95 created economic havoc, and residents abandoned Freedtown, moving north to Dade City. Nothing remains of the settlement. It's not clear when former Freedtown residents started their own congregation of the Mount Zion AME Church in Dade City, but records show the congregation was active by at least 1901. The congregation expanded as Dade City's fortunes improved after World War I, and a new sanctuary was needed. The church building, a white masonry structure noted for its stained-glass windows, was dedicated in 1920. The original fellowship hall then was used for meetings. From her childhood, Hill remembers overnight prayer sessions held in that hall. "We would go there for pray-ins and stay around the night, either when there were hard times or you were wanting more of the spirit available to you," she recalled. "You would go there to rekindle yourself." Later, the building became a parsonage and office with electricity. Wood paneling and linoleum were installed over the pine board walls and floors. Those coverings will be stripped away, and the hall will be restored to its original state after the move. Over time, the museum hopes to gather historical items from the area and display them in the hall. Black hopes it can be a center for genealogical research as well. Others interested in history agree the donation of the fellowship hall could signal a turning point. "The reality has been, until very recently, there has been no public support for black history in Florida, until the most recent generations," said Canter Brown Jr., a history professor at Florida A&M University and co-author of two books on the development of the AME Church in Florida. "In order to perpetuate the social system in place, the state actively repressed the most valuable parts of black history," he said. "That doesn't mean there isn't exciting stuff to be found," he said. "There is." Reporter Jo-Ann Johnston can be reached at (352) 521-3062. ABOUT AME CHURCH FOUNDED: 1787 in Philadelphia when discrimination prompted some black congregants to withdraw from a Methodist Episcopal church and create an independent denomination REFORMIST PROFILE: Known for its work in the antislavery movement; later, promoting civil rights and social action to help the poor and homeless. Women first began taking leadership roles in the 1890s. DADE CITY'S CONGREGATION: About 180 members, average church service attendance about 70. E-mail address is Source: Tampa Tribune research


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