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GREENWOOD RENAISSANCE & REBUILD

MT. ZION IS REBUILT

In the immediate aftermath, Mount Zion Rev. Ira A. Whitaker ordered 24-hour surveillance over the ruins and then demanded city officials watch as church members cleared the area to ensure that the building did not contain weapons as suspected.

It was a humble reminder that even in the midst of victimization, black Tulsans had to prove their innocence to white authorities. Another blow the church suffered was that its insurance policy did not cover damages caused by an “act of riot,” according to a clause.

Despite being one of 23 churches burned down during the massacre, Mount Zion members forged on, Johnson said. Congregants lost the sanctuary to violence but the basement remained salvageable. A temporary covering and a few makeshift pews were installed so that worship services could be held.

Services were also orchestrated elsewhere in the area, including at the home of Mabel B. Little, the revered matriarch of Tulsa’s black community.

“They decided they were going to rebuild the church,” said Johnson.

And they did just that, though the church carried $50,000 in mortgage debt. Rather than disband or join neighboring churches, members voted to not file bankruptcy. While some did leave, others spent countless weekends and days attempting to rebuild.

Five years after the fire, Whitaker continued to lead the congregation as it reduced its debt, which was necessary before a new church could be constructed.

Overcoming the challenge

The church faced a significant setback when an ill and discouraged Whitaker later resigned.

His absence led the way to frequent leadership changes and a brief shuttering of the church before Mount Zion regained stability under Rev. J.H. Dotson in 1937, when members were still gathering at the dirt floor basement.

Dotson, who came from Muskogee to lead the church, started an aggressive campaign to pay off the remainder of the debt and then finance a rebuild.

Mount Zion records indicate that it was 1942 — 21 years after the initial devastation — that the debt was finally paid off on the strength of determination and donations.

“It is a little easier for them to give their money now, however, because they have tangible proof that they’re getting something for it,” Dotson said in a 1945 Tulsa Tribune story about Mount Zion’s resurgence.

‘The church that faith built’

Ruby Givens has been a faithful Mount Zion member for the last 55 years. Growing up in Claremore, she didn’t witness the massacre first-hand. What she knew about the events of the day were through her father, a World War I veteran. The situation, said Givens, was characterized as “negative.”

Deteriorating race relations, however, was something Givens did personally experience following the massacre. Though Oklahomans rarely discussed what happened — out of either embarrassment or shame — the animosity never wavered, she said.

“There was extreme hatred, and it was hatred deserved (toward whites) from blacks because it was just so unnecessary,” said Givens. “The burning of the church was just total devastation in the community.”

Eventually, a corner lot was laid in 1948 and a newly constructed Mount Zion was dedicated on Oct. 21, 1952, under Dotson’s leadership. Designed by Mount Zion members W.S. and J.C. Latimer, it was dubbed “the church that faith built.”

The church, like others in Greenwood, was a symbol of economic might that became symbolic of the largest concentration of black wealth in America. To have Mount Zion return in a state “as good as it ever was,” said Givens, inspired the district’s black residents to move forward.

Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, the current Mount Zion is a multi-level building complete with office and meeting space, with a nursery to go along with old stained glass windows that were donated from Germany. The sanctuary can hold 1,200 at capacity.

“When the community saw that Mount Zion was rebuilding, they had hope that if Mount Zion could do it, the (rest of Greenwood) could do it,” Givens said. “It was an inspiration to the community to rebuild after seeing what Mount Zion had gone through.”

Source:  Tulsa World