Storytelling is an integral part of history. Stories teach, they inspire, they motivate, they caution. Stories tell where you have been and where you are and were you hope to go in the future.
Preservation Massachusetts is excited to this new bi-monthly feature we are calling Storytellers.Through Storytellers we will share a local preservation story that can serve to educate and inspire others.
We launch this new series with an inspiring story of an historic African American Church in Great Barrington and the dedicated advocates who banded together to save it.
The Path to Restoration
The Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church, Great Barrington
Writing by Hannah Van Sickle
Wray Gunn’s affiliation with the Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts dates back to 1942. Gunn recalls Sundays as a boy, after relocating to the Berkshires from Henderson, North Carolina with his mother and two brothers: “We had a long trek to get to church,” he recounts. “There was a good singing choir, and I can remember the preacher—similar to the one in the south—very noisy, and his voice ringing through the chapel. It was exciting, but I was in a strange land—things were different—and I don’t know if I appreciated being in the church,” he says. In the ensuing seven decades, Gunn’s position has evolved markedly.
The history of Clinton Church dates back to its dedication in 1887. The building itself, a distinctive example of traditional New England shingle style architecture, currently stands empty and in disrepair. In many ways the iconic bell tower—sheathed in white clapboards but missing a bell—serves as a fitting symbol of the congregation’s purpose, one rooted in the practical allocation of resources that allowed it to become the spiritual, cultural and political home for the African American community in the Southern Berkshires. The church was a place of significance for civil rights activist and Great Barrington native son W.E.B. Du Bois.
In the congregation’s 130 year history, community members have gathered off the beaten path—to a locale tucked between Main Street and the railroad tracks—for Sunday sermons, dime suppers and sewing circles. In 2014, faced with a declining congregation and limited funds, the doors at 9 Elm Court were closed. When the property was put up for sale, Gunn and a group of community members came together keen on a joint vision: the purchase, restoration and repurposing of the historic building. In May of 2017, the nonprofit Clinton Church Restoration surpassed its fundraising goal of $100,000 and purchased the decommissioned church from the North Eastern Episcopal District of the A.M.E. Zion Conference. Now that the building has been secured, plans are underway to repurpose the deconsecrated church for community use in a manner that both honors and celebrates the local African American community, the history of the church and its first female pastor, the Rev. Esther Dozier, and the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois.
“There is a community center feeling to the project,” says board member Beth Carlson, who cites overwhelming concern that the church would be lost as a resource to the black community as driving the nonprofit’s work. “We actually want to restore it as the same community center that it was—with a place that can connect people around African American culture and history in the Berkshires but in a secular way—in order to reach large audiences.” The building, poised to become a vital and self-sustaining entity for community use, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008 and is a site on the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail.
“Now that we have this building, we’re not going to let it go,” says Gunn who goes on to speak frankly about the lessons learned from his experience with this project. The biggest? The importance of a team—as well as “learning how much support there was for this project in this community at this time in this political climate,” adds Carlson. Despite being a predominantly black congregation, the doors at Clinton Church were always open to everyone. This simple fact gives rise to the group’s advice for others facing similar issues: “It is really important to stress the importance of saving—specifically—these African American places. So many have been lost. They weren’t thought to be important enough, but they are,” says Cora Portnoff, CCR board member and former congregant. Portnoff first visited the former Clinton Church in the 1980s and recalls, “the place was packed; I couldn’t get a seat.” The congregation, swelling to more than 100 in its heyday, remained strong until the 1990s when things started to fade. It is this legacy, of not leaving anyone out, that CCR hopes to carry forward.
Eugenie Sills, CCR advisory board member, points to Stacia Caplanson, Preservation Circuit Rider for Central and Western Massachusetts, as an invaluable resource for CCR in its inaugural year. “Stacia has gotten to know the project and provided valuable insight at two of our multi-day planning sessions. She has kept us informed about historic preservation workshops, conferences and meetings and has been particularly helpful in the grants arena, providing one-on-one advice about the grant seeking process and regularly sharing information about relevant upcoming opportunities.” It is this type of auxiliary support that reinforces what CCR already knows: it quite often takes a village to effect great change.
As Great Barrington celebrates the 150th anniversary of W.E.B. Du Bois’ birth (February 23, 1868), there is an opportunity to breathe new life into a seemingly simple structure which, in turn, will undoubtedly resuscitate and elevate Du Bois’ presence, both locally and in the nation. The important work being done by CCR to preserve the historic Clinton Church will amplify Du Bois’ story in the Berkshires—one that is woven from one end of Great Barrington to the other—while creating a hub for telling the story of all African Americans who followed in this visionary intellectual’s footsteps.
There are few congregants remaining from the former Clinton Church who remember the way things used to be. Wray Gunn’s face lights up when he talks of Grace Freeman, affectionately known as “the kettle lady,” who could be seen on the corner of Main and Bridge Streets in the 1950s, beside a big, black kettle, raising money for the church. It is this spirit of rallying around a good cause that remains alive and well. The wooden pews from the sanctuary have been removed, cleaned, and stored. They remain in near perfect condition. Plans are in place to keep the new space flexible while incorporating original details into the project’s aesthetic—an appropriate blending of the past and present that can be collectively carried in to the future.
Many thanks to Clinton Church Restoration, Inc. for sharing their story!
If you are interested in sharing your preservation story through Storytellers, contact us today!