By: Charles P. Everett, IV
The history of Mount Zion A.M.E Zion Church has been greatly influenced by four major events occurring over the last one hundred forty years and the collaborative leadership of its laity and clergy. Since 1866, these elements have worked together to shape its destiny. Permeating all of these influences has been Mount Zion Zion’s focus on the “Great Commission” instituted by Jesus Christ: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”
The first major event impacting Mount Zion’s history was its organization. A small group of believers had been conducting prayer meetings in a little log cabin on Grady Street. According to early oral histories of its members, Abram Peacock, Abram McGee, Kitt Pollard, their families and friends had been participating in these meetings. At the Annual Conference held at Old Ship A.M.E. Zion Church in 1866, members of the Grady Street assembly appealed to become a part of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Denomination. The Annual Conference granted their request and sent Reverend Stephen Hilliard to provide spiritual leadership.
Humble in their beginning, Reverend Hilliard and his small flock of members purchased a small house from Miss Lizzie Lawrence to be used as a place of worship. To this structure was added a “brush arbor.” Worship services were conducted at the Grady Street location for three years.
The second major event occurred in 1869 when the first framed structure was built on lot 2, block of Peacock’s Tract. On this property located at the corner of Holt and Stone Streets, Little Zion African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was built. As reflected in the Record of Conveyances recorded on February 1, 1871, land was purchased from Thomas and Ann Robinson for four hundred-fifty dollars ($450.00). The lumber for the new church structure was donated by a Mr. Wescott. John Horton gave the chairs. John Powell contributed a table, which was used as an altar. These donors were Caucasians.
Serving with Reverend Hilliard as trustees were: Abraham Burke, Richard Stowers, Gilbert Harris, Moses Pitts, Samuel Wigglesworth, Richard Scott, Jerry Thompson, Robert Brown and Jerry Bradford.
The church continued to grow as a result of faithful Christian leadership. By 1886, its name had changed from Little Zion to Mount Zion A.M.E. Zion Church, and it was well known in the community. Mr. Jesse Duke, the black publisher of a local newspaper titled the “Herald,” printed on October 16, 1886 the following article:
The 20th Anniversary of Mount Zion A.M.E.Z. Church, on Peacock’s Tract, that has been in session during the whole week, was a grand success in every respect. The greatest feature of the Anniversary will take place Sunday. Everybody should attend.
(Volume 1 Number 24)
In 1888, under the pastorate of Reverend T.A. Weathington, a second frame structure was contructed. Next door to the church building, the congregation built its first parsonage for the pastor and his family. This church building stood as a beacon light to the community until it was destroyed by fire in 1898.
During the latter part of the nineteenth century Mount Zion continued to be blessed with strong and vibrant leadership. Records do not provide all the names of all who served during the decades of the 1890’s; however, four names were significant. They were George and Belle Newstell, Reverend William Finley and Gus Watkins.
According to The National Cyclopdeia of the Colored Race, George E. Newstell was the chairman of the Board of Trustees of Mount Zion A.M.E. Zion Church, a trustee of the Lomax-Hannon Industrial School of Greenville, Alabama, a trustee of the Swayne School of Montgomery, Alabama and chairman of the Republican County Executive of Montgomery County.
Mr. Newstell graduated from Swayne School in 1886 and became a porter earning $2.50 a week. He was evaluated to the position of manager after three years and paid $5.00 a week. Eventually, he saved enough money to develop his own business, The Newstell Dry Goods Store, located on Monroe Street in Montgomery, Alabama. He also built a real estate business from which he acquired property valued at $40,000 dollars and rents from which he earned $250.00 per month; this was good income during the 1800’s.
Socially, he was also active. He served as an executive officer in the Order of the Knights and Daughters of Tabor for fifteen years. He also was a member of the Endowment Board of the Knights of Pythias and was a treasurer of the Odd Fellows of Alabama.