Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

These Walls: Tulsa's Mount Zion Baptist Church

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

These Walls: Tulsa's Mount Zion Baptist Church

Article excerpt

On April 4, 1921, worshippers at Mount Zion Baptist Church capped five years of labor by opening their first sanctuary, a four-story demonstration of applied faith framed in red brick.

Less than two months later, unleashed hatred consumed that house of prayer and everything around it.

To this day the Tulsa race riot remains a disturbing mystery to most Oklahomans, its death tally estimated at anywhere from 39 to 300 or more, the large majority black Americans. Yet the stark reality of that dark Memorial Day remains very present in structures like Mount Zion, from the chilling photos capturing its smoke- shrouded form to the perseverance proclaimed by today's yellow brick towers.

"They decided to rebuild it to the same grandeur," said the Rev. G. Calvin McCutchen, who would lead the congregation for 50 years. "The only difference was the color of the brick."

That, and some two decades of heartache.

When the fires finally died from the worst riot in U.S. history, only broken walls and ash remained, smoldering among a thousand other such piles across 35 blazed Greenwood District blocks. Since its members lived within walking distance of the church, the Mount Zion congregation represented just a few hundred of the estimated 10,000 people left homeless, and in most cases jobless, within the once prosperous "black Wall Street."

"They had restaurants," said McCutchen. "They had beauty shops. They had shoe repair shops. All gone."

For many, life as they knew it ended that day. Some in the Mount Zion congregation withered under those punishing hardships, compounded by a $50,000 mortgage still held on the $92,000 church ($1.09 million in adjusted currency), their insurance coverage denied because of the riot. Others stiffened behind the cleanup effort, determined to pay off that debt.

"The members of the church made some extreme sacrifices," said McCutchen. "A few owned businesses, but the majority of them worked in the southern part of the city as domestic workers. They continued to work and make extreme sacrifices."

A solid foundation of the faithful pulled together within that struggle to evade bankruptcy and reclaim their community and lives, worshipping in a tabernacle or other temporary locations. …

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