West Virginia Historic Black First Baptist Zion Church To Be Converted in Culture Center

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First Zion Baptist Church once was the center of Delores Jackson Foster’s life.

Every Sunday in the 1940s — at a time when there weren’t many black families living in the Harpers Ferry area — she and her 12 siblings filled a row of the brick church’s pews, seated in order of their birth, and watched their father preach.

Now 78 and living in another part of town, Foster recently joined an effort by the Harpers Ferry-Bolivar (W.Va.) Historic Town Foundation to raise money to buy the vacant and dilapidated church that sits behind town hall on West Ridge Street and preserve it as a cultural center for the two communities.

“I wanted my voice heard as someone who grew up in that church,” Foster said of joining the committee. “Just the memories of knowing that my mother and father led me to Christ in that place is why I wanted to hold onto it in some way.”

About 20 people recently participated in a brainstorming session for the project at The Guide Shack Cafe and discussed how to raise money and gather history, said Dick Cunningham, president of the foundation.

Visions for the center include displaying the accomplishments of black people in the community — including its historic claims as the birthing ground for the NAACP and the site of the Niagara Movement.

Since the church’s sanctuary is intact, movable pews could allow for concert series, amateur theater, weddings, community meetings, ice-cream socials, book signings and lectures, Cunningham said.

The idea to convert the church came amid growing concerns about the towns’ number of deteriorating, historic properties, he said.

Following damage from the July 23, 2015, three-alarm fire that gutted Harpers Ferry’s historic district, the foundation, which serves similarly to a chamber of commerce for the two small towns, decided to look for funding outside Harpers Ferry’s coffers, he said.

Cunningham said the foundation wants to raise $70,000 in donations and grants to buy the two-story church and one-quarter-acre property, and a few thousand more to stabilize the structure and make repairs.

“It’s a leap to raise $70,000 among 300 people,” he said. “It’s kind of scary, but we’re looking outside of that, and I’m hoping we can get some assistance.”

He credited his daughter, Carrie Ellen Gauthier, owner of Light Horse Inn and Harpers Ferry Getaways, with the idea to convert the church into a cultural center. He said federal funds can’t be used to refurbish a church, but can be used to convert one to a community center.

Gauthier said she has contacted the owners of the church, and they are on board with the idea.

“I’m hoping that we are going to make them proud with what we put there,” she said.

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Source: Herald Mail Media | PEPPER VAN TASSELL