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137 Years of History

Mount Zion’s part in black history, Arlington history continues to grow.

<i>Note: Over the course of February, in observance of Black History Month, the Arlington Connection will profile some of the historical sites featured in the Black Heritage Museum’s new brochure, “African American History in Arlington.”</i>

At Mount Zion Baptist Church, the congregation’s history and the history of a people go hand in hand.

Mount Zion is not just a religious fixture. The church has played a vital role in local secular life for generations, and it is one of seven local churches featured in the Black Heritage Museum’s new brochure, “African American History in Arlington, Virginia.”

Produced as a collaboration between the Black Heritage Museum and county staff at the Arlington Convention and Visitors Service, the brochure was unveiled last month, on Martin Luther King Day. By promoting Black History not just in February but throughout the year, the county hopes sites like Mount Zion will give a boost to Arlington’s already $2 billion per year tourism industry.

Mount Zion was founded during the Civil War as Old Bell Church, the first church for free blacks in Arlington. Today the congregation has grown so large, Caronell Lemalle-Diew arrives each week at 8:30 a.m. to make sure she gets a seat in the sanctuary for the 9:30 service.

It was established as part of Freedman’s Village, the refuge for emancipated slaves. No pictures remain of the original building, and few other documents from the original congregation have survived the last century and a half, which brought moves and fires.

The federal government cleared the site of the church in 1866. Church members purchased the property on what is now Arlington Ridge Road, where they built a two-story brick church and named it Mount Zion Baptist. The church built a new home on the same site in 1930, but was forced to move out in 1942, when the federal government bought the land to build roads for the Pentagon.

Through that time, Mount Zion began stepping-up its role in secular community affairs under the Rev. James Green, elected to head the church in 1914. Green was president of the Arlington Civic League, and one of the earliest 20th century advocates of neighborhood improvement programs in the area. He even helped the church survive even after he was gone, clearing Mount Zion of its debt, which by 1949 stood at more than $70,000.

CURRENTLY, MOUNT ZION stands in the heart of the Nauck Community. The building opened in 1945 and has housed the congregation since, and church members have stayed faithful despite the moves. Mount Zion has been operating continuously since before 1866, making it the oldest black church in Arlington.

The church continued to evolve and strengthen its place in local history throughout the latter half of the 20th Century. Beginning in 1952, the Rev. Oswald Smith assumed leadership of the church, emphasizing the role of community service in church life.

Smith established a Deacon’s Fund to help Mount Zion’s neighbors pay for medicine, shelter, utilities and other necessities during times of crisis. The church also became a popular meeting place during those years.

Bob Alexander, a Mount Zion church member for 47 years, remembers those days well. “It was a site for meetings of the NAACP and a lot of politicians,” he said.

Political discussions are still common at the church, as members mingle after services to discuss the current state of affairs in Arlington. “Where we have failed is to get the County Board to provide more affordable housing,” Alexander said, but discussions on the topic are common.

THAT MIX OF secular concerns and religious teaching makes the church vibrant and attractive to more people every year. A decade ago, Mount Zion had about 450 members and an operating budget of $80,000. Now there are over 2,200 members and an annual budget of $1.5 million. The sanctuary can’t even contain all the worshippers on Sundays, despite the four services.

Lemalle-Diew said it’s more than just services that attract her to Mount Zion. “It has everything that anyone could ever want,” she said.

Indeed, the church offers over 10 ministries, working with youth, drama and single adults ministry. By appealing to young singles, the church continues to grow, even as others across the country struggle to bring in younger worshippers.

Leonard Smith, senior minister at Mount Zion, continues to expand the church’s scope. He began a radio outreach program in 1999, and the church also produces audio tapes of all his sermons.

Sidney Huguley, a member of the Mount Zion Deacon Ministry, said those have played a large part in the church’s recent expansion. “[He] has connections all over the country,” Huguley said, and church members often send tapes of Smith’s sermons to their relatives in the military, stationed overseas.

BUT A MOVE may loom in Mount Zion’s future once again. . Improvements to the main building, where the original bell is still on display, continue. But as the size of the congregation continues to increase, the historic home of the church may be unable to accommodate the huge crowds that show up for Sunday services.

The church has already purchased a house on South Langley Street to serve as a base for some of its ministries, and other church-owned land on that street could be developed in the future.

The more the church expands, the more vital a part of the community it becomes. In his Feb. 2 sermon, Richard Green, one of the associate ministers, encouraged churchgoers to use the church as a tool for helping others in the community. “Are you ready to be a doer and not just a hearer of the Word of God?” he challenged.

That message is exactly what Arlington needs to hear now, said Angie McMillan, a Mount Zion member for the last five years. “The church has a responsibility to the community and as well the community cannot survive without the church,” she said.

For 137 years, Mount Zion has fulfilled its responsibility to the community, and the community continues to repay the church with faith, and with honor for the church’s history.