by Tim Gilmore, 7/22/2022
1. Story Branches
The dark red brick Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, birthed from abolition and emancipation, rising in gothic spires, succeeded five previous structures on this site in 1902. The sanctuary destroyed by the Great Fire of 1901 was perhaps even larger. The congregation formed right out of the Civil War.
The story won’t walk a straight line. Not only does it curve, dart and hop dead-ends, but it branches and branches. In the foreword to the 1976 booklet celebrating Mount Zion’s 110th anniversary, Alethia Gibbs and Delphine Thomas wrote: 1) that you needed to arrive by 10:30 Sunday morning to find a seat downstairs, 2) that Mrs. Laura Jenkins and Mrs. Jennie Reeves were the first church “flower ladies,” 3) that the first black lawyer in Jacksonville, Judge and State Representative and Senator Joseph E. Lee, left Mount Zion $20,000 ($300,000 in today’s currency) when he died in 1920.
Gibbs and Thomas also wrote of the long history of powerful women at Mount Zion. In the late 1800s, the church ordained women whose “preaching,” they wrote, “stirred” the congregation mightily. “The spirit prevailed all over the church and many shouted to their feelings.”
In 1920, Eartha White held training sessions at Mount Zion to explain how voting worked. Women had received the right to vote, but in the depths of Jim Crow. Though the 13th Amendment already permitted black men to vote, Southern towns had stacked poll taxes and white primary laws against them. The Ku Klux Klan held parades all over Florida, including Jacksonville, to terrorize black voters.
“Eartha White would come to Mount Zion with some of the older teachers and train the people,” Gibbs and Thomas wrote. “If [trainees] did not know how to write, they would learn by their names being placed on the blackboard.” Teachers indicated names of candidates with a pointer and asked church members to spell the names aloud. “These persons would know where to pull the lever on a name.”
Each footnote’s its own world history; every asterisk opens like a flower. The story can’t be told. It can’t be charted, graphed or mapped. Standing at the foot of this square brick belltower, I think of this church as an ancient oak; to tell its story would be to write a full history of every leaf this tree’s ever shed and grown.
2. Complexions in Stained Glass
Mount Zion filled its Sunday mornings with black leaders and lawyers and physicians, as well as the surrounding neighborhood, dense with shotgun houses and cheap woodframe and tarpaper cottages. The parsonage, later demolished, stood at the back of the church. Since water fountains elsewhere in town were segregated, the fountain out front was open to everybody. Now the fountain settles, dry in disuse, encaged in security bars, tiles broken, dedication plaque dated November 3, 1951, its welcome still in place.
I meet Dr. LeMorris Prier, who grew up attending Mount Zion and returned after retiring from his pharmacy career in Miami, in the shade of the towers in the midsummer heat. Now church historian, one of Dr. Prier’s main priorities is restoring the brilliant stained-glass windows which drivers racing past on East Beaver and East State Street can hardly see. The protective coating applied to the exterior of the windows decades ago has yellowed and faded opaque. You have to come inside now to see the bright blues, greens and reds, the Jesuses and angels.
Architects J.B. Carr and Company of Birmingham and Chicago’s Francis Norton designed Mount Zion in the Romanesque Revival style of many African Methodist Episcopal churches. The Romanesque cast medieval church elements in a reserved and dignified modern role. A rhythm of quoins zipper up the corners of the square towers and meet the crenellated parapet that marches along the roofline.
In the great welcoming cavern of the church, beneath the elegant stamped tin ceiling, below the chandeliers and the arch braces of the striking hammerbeam truss overhead – another medieval feature used in Gothic Revival and Romanesque churches – Christ looks out from greens and golds, reds and blues.
The Jesus to the east is white, but the westward Jesus is black. Dr. Prier says the black Jesus replaced a white Jesus when a storm blew out the original window in 1969. Considering what might happen to the complexion of the white Jesus when the windows are restored, Prier laughs affably and says, “I’m praying on it.” He says he’s “inclined to have Jesus represented in a manner than represents the people of the church.”
3. The Education of Dr. Prier, Part One
Dr. LeMorris Prier lived in public housing at the Blodgett Homes until he was three, when his parents had saved enough money to buy a house at 33rd and Etta Streets across from Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary. He started school at Bethune the very year it opened. His parents didn’t know Duval County had built the segregated black school, named for a Civil Rights icon, on the site of a former ash dump, exposing generations of black children to PCBs, lead, arsenic, mercury and other toxins.
He vividly recalls Jacksonville’s rigid system of apartheid when he was growing up. He was nine years old on Ax Handle Saturday and 12 when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the home of the first black first grader at Lackawanna Elementary. Prier’s parents, Roosevelt and Alzie, both grew up in Abbeville, Georgia, Wilcox County, where United States troops arrested Jefferson Davis on May 9, 1865.
So the truths of America’s central crisis have always breathed close. Four months before Davis’s capture, U.S. General William T. Sherman had issued Special Field Order no. 15, famously allotting 40 acres of land to formerly enslaved people, rescinded by President Andrew Johnson after Lincoln’s assassination. Dr. Prier marvels that just one year after Emancipation, a black congregation owned the property where he meets me now, though even in 2022, he says, America still needs to come to terms with its central crisis.
Prier’s father Roosevelt worked as a cement finisher, but the upper echelons of Mount Zion treated him as an equal. “A point that people often miss, and perhaps even something my colleagues would scorn, is we had our own class systems,” he says. “What I’m describing is an upper middle class existence.” Sitting in a front row pew, beneath the mighty pipe organ and the words of Jesus high over the pulpit, “Him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out,” Prier says, “The fact that my father came up in here and garnered respect, when he’d been forced to stop school in the sixth grade to take care of his grandparents who had been tenant farmers, it’s pretty astounding.”
Prier has visited Forest Glen, Georgia, where his great-grandparents sharecropped, but only traces in the landscape remain. He says, “The sign’s still there, the clay roads are still there, but the life they worked to put together there is gone.”
4. Origins, Part One
As the city smoldered from repeated sackings and burnings by both Confederate and Union forces during the Civil War, the original members of Mount Zion purchased this property. Above the plank road and the Spanish king’s road that ran from west of town through its heart, at this northeast corner of Newnan Street and Beaver Street, one year after slavery’s abolition, people who’d been bought and sold in a system structured on their dehumanization bought and christened this sacred ground.
“One of my ultimate goals and hopes and prayers,” says Dr. Prier, “is to find out just who were those gentlemen who purchased this plot of land.” He’d like to know their names, see their faces, look into their eyes. It’s a mystery that consumes him sometimes, in quiet moments.
Above Christ’s invitation over the pipe organ, the likeness of Richard Allen, minister, writer and founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, looks out from a stained-glass window over the congregation. The oldest A.M.E. church in the South, Emanuel A.M.E., belovedly known as Mother Emanuel, dates to 1817. It was at Mother Emanuel that white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine people in that 2015 mass shooting. The congregation at the mother church in Philadelphia, Mother Bethel A.M.E., dates to 1794, and it was there in 1816 that Richard Allen brought other black Methodist congregations into the new African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Both Mount Zion and Edward Waters University, two miles westward, date their founding to 1866, when the Mother Church brought the Reverend Charles Pearce from Canada, where he’d been preaching to black American refugees from slavery, and dispatched him to Florida. Raising funds for education, Pearce said, “We have a right to aspire to and claim position with education,” for “Without [education] we have no assurance of permanent stability.”
5. The Education of Dr. Prier, Part Two
In high school, Prier dated the daughter of a “pretty notable Baptist preacher,” whose name he’d rather not share. It troubled the preacher that his daughter was dating an Episcopalian, especially since the A.M.E. Church doesn’t baptize members by full immersion. When he said he didn’t believe Prier was actually “saved,” destined for Heaven instead of eternal damnation, a crisis broke out in Prier’s heart.
His questionings grew more intense. He asked his parents about what the preacher had said, then met with the pastor of Mount Zion, but no answers brought him peace. In his senior year at Raines High School, he took “Communism versus Capitalism,” a class then required for graduation in Florida. The teacher saw Prier reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and asked him whether he had “Communist aspirations.”
In college at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Prier listened to “all the prevailing views,” including the radio station operated by the Nation of Islam. He met the radical poetry group The Last Poets, who toured the country, and when poet Abiodun Oyewole asked him his nickname, Prier immediately regretted saying the name he’d gone by as a little boy. “Bubba Frog” elicited a storm of laughter and the admonition, “You need to change your nickname.”
Prier considered converting to Islam, but when he finished his doctorate of pharmacy at the University of Tennessee and launched his career in Miami, he found another A.M.E. church he liked. All the while, Mount Zion was home. When his sister Marian Prier Day was murdered in New Orleans in 1984, the family installed a stained-glass window with her name and three stalks of lilies at the back of the church. The church packed full for his father’s funeral in 2000 and Prier moved back to Jax the following year. The church packed full again for his mother’s funeral in 2014. He dedicated himself to celebrating the church’s history to keep it moving forward.
6. Origins, Part Two
In the 1880s, the Reverend William P. Ross began holding classes at Mount Zion for the East Florida Conference Divinity High School. In 1892, several iterations of black higher education in Northeast Florida, including Brown Theological Institute and Divinity High, became Edward Waters College, named for the third bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Liberal white institutions also began offering educational opportunities to black students. Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, later renamed Snyder Memorial, at the very center of Jacksonville, held night classes. The Reverend S.B. Darnell, pastor of Ebenezer Methodist Episcopal, founded the Cookman Institute for black students, four blocks west of Mount Zion at Beaver Street and Hogan, and named it for Methodist minister Alfred Cookman, who helped raise funds. In 1923, the Cookman Institute would merge with Mary McLeod Bethune’s Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls to become what’s now Bethune-Cookman University.
In fact, Jacksonville was more liberal in the Reconstruction years following the Civil War than it soon would be when the South revised its history to memorialize the Confederacy and hardened its racial lines again in the Jim Crow Era.
Much of Jacksonville had supported the United States against the Confederacy before and during the Civil War. During Reconstruction, Florida Congressman William J. Purman called Jacksonville “really a Northern city in a Southern latitude” and James Weldon Johnson wrote that in the 1880s, Jax was “regarded by colored people all over the country as the most liberal town in the South.” Johnson regretted how bitterly that had changed.
7. Deep Roots
Even at 103 years old, Sollie Mitchell kept to his Sunday morning routine. Mary had died in 2013, three days before the Mitchells’ 62nd wedding anniversary. Each Sunday morning, Sollie put on his suit and his tie, his jackets swallowing him up a little more all the time, his belts cinching tighter. He’d drive to his nearest Krystal fast food restaurant for breakfast, attend morning services at Mount Zion, where he’d been a faithful member for 71 years, then visit his beloved Mary’s grave in Restlawn Cemetery.
When he died on March 23, 2022, Sollie was 28 days shy of his 104th birthday and the oldest person in the city. Sollie was orphaned three times before he arrived in Jacksonville in 1931, as Marsha Phelts wrote for The Jacksonville Free Press on March 31st, but became class president at Stanton High School, where James Weldon Johnson had been principal. Born during World War I, Sollie worked with Jax-born Civil Rights giant A. Philip Randolph with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and attended the March on Washington in 1963. He retired as an attendant for Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in 1981.
Mary Barnett Mitchell, a member of Mount Zion all her life, came from deep A.M.E. roots. It was her grandfather, Reverend Daniel William Gillislee, as pastor of Mount Zion, who brought the Reverend James Randolph, Asa Philip Randolph’s father, to Jacksonville in 1892 to found a smaller church called New Hope A.M.E. Chapel. Sollie joined Mount Zion when he married Mary here on June 31, 1951.
The Barnetts, one of the wealthiest black families in the segregated city, branched off from the white Barnetts who, in 1877, founded the Bank of Jacksonville, which, as Barnett Bank, became the largest banking company in Florida. In her 2018 book Sollie Mitchell’s First 100 Years, Phelts writes that Mary’s parents hosted a two-day wedding reception for more than 350 guests in their three story home at 619 West Eighth Street in Sugar Hill, the wealthiest line of black residences in the city.
8. Back from that Great Gettin’-Up Morning
In their foreword to the book celebrating Mount Zion’s 110th anniversary in 1976, Alethia Gibbs and Delphine Thomas list scores of prominent church members, their fame now mostly forgotten, and many of Mount Zion’s firsts: the first black Boy Scout troop in Florida in 1930, the first Women’s Day, a celebration Gibbs and Thomas say “has even taken roots in Africa,” and the organization of Divinity High school, “which took the name of Edward Waters College.”
“Only God,” they wrote, “can measure the suffering, the years of sacrifice and the dedication” Mount Zion’s “members of yesteryear” planted in their church.
Dr. Prier remembers a little boy playing marbles in the dirt outside the church one Sunday morning 60-some years ago and the matronly schoolteacher wearing a fox stole, its head and feet still attached, asking him, “Why don’t you have your mama and daddy bring you into the church?” Even as a child, Prier recognized class distinctions, frequently problematic.
Over the arched windows set in fields of red brick, ferns take hold, thrive in the rain, bake in the brutal July sunlight. The belltower, decades silent, stands sentinel over an ever-altering landscape. When Prier was a little boy, row after row of shotgun houses stood where Brutalist apartment towers rise now. Prier points to the ferns and says, “Nature takes back.”
Even so, Mount Zion marches toward That Great Gettin’-Up Morning, even as Mahalia Jackson sang of picking up that “silver trumpet” on the way “to the Great Carnation” to sing “Oh, I been redeemed!” Even so, archaeologist of the psychology of geography that I am, I listen to the voices from these dark red bricks, to register and honor them and let them bear me “back ceaselessly into the past.” A world history cries out from every footnote of every story. I’m trying to catch a few phrases to make music.