Historic Tulsa church makes national list
The resilient Mount Zion Baptist Church cements its legacy with its placement on the National Register of Historic Places.
As time marches indifferently onward, one thing we can count on is, everything, without exception, changes. Through a century of economic vicissitudes, a race riot and the specter of urban renewal, Mount Zion Baptist Church in Tulsa’s historic Greenwood District has changed with the times. But it has always remained Mount Zion.
Added to the National Register of Historic Places in September 2008, it will likely remain so for a long time to come.
“When people come into Tulsa, one of the things they look for is Mount Zion Baptist Church,” says Ruby Givens, a church member for 38 years who chaired the committee to press for Mount Zion’s inclusion in the register. Concerned that development in the area would eventually overwhelm the church, Givens and others organized to have it protected.
Mount Zion was founded in 1909 as Second Baptist Church, holding services in a one-room schoolhouse before erecting a building of its own in April 1921.
“Somewhere along the way, they decided to be second to none, so they changed the name to Mount Zion,” former pastor Rev. George McCutchen says.
When racial tensions in a segregated Tulsa boiled over in late May 1921, sparking what was likely the most destructive race riot in American history, Mount Zion was burned to the ground. Mobs targeted the newly completed church, author and historian Hannibal Johnson says, because of false rumors that it was used as a weapons cache during the riots.
They had “nothing but rubble and a $50,000 mortgage,” McCutchen says.
Amid the desolation, the ruins of Mount Zion became a relief center, distributing aid to the thousands left homeless by the violence.
Church members were determined to rebuild, and in 1952, the new building was finally completed.
“Mount Zion is really a story of renewal and resilience,” Johnson says.
McCutchen served as pastor from 1957 to 2007, and has seen the changes in the Greenwood community over half a century.
Black-owned businesses were rebuilt after the riot and contributed to a thriving Greenwood into the 1960s, but when Interstate 244 cut through the district, half of the residential neighborhood was wiped out, McCutchen says.
“Then urban renewal wiped out the other half,” he says.
Paradoxically, desegregation contributed to the decline of Greenwood businesses, as black patrons increasingly shopped at stores outside the district.
“The shops across town started finding that color wasn’t black or white; it was green,” McCutchen says.
McCutchen saw the congregation numbers at Mount Zion fall as the neighborhood around the church disappeared into a thicket of underbrush.
“There was a lot of years Mount Zion wasn’t nothing but a rabbit ranch,” he says.
Today, however, the congregation at Mount Zion is on the rise, McCutchen says.
In August 2009, under the leadership of the new pastor, Dr. Leroy M. Cole, Mount Zion will celebrate 100 years as a living monument to community, faith and resilience.