GREAT BARRINGTON — A project that will turn a historic African-American church building into a center for African-American culture and local heritage got a critical boost Tuesday with the announcement of a $389,000 federal grant for significant repairs.
The National Park Service African American Civil Rights Grants Program awarded the money to the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area, which oversees the project to restore the Clinton AME Zion Church on Elm Court.
Work for the first phase of the restoration project is expected to begin by early summer, according to Dan Bolognani, executive director of Housatonic Heritage. The Clinton Church is a site on Housatonic Heritage's African American Heritage Trail.
"It's a bricks-and-mortar grant," he added. "And it's rare to find that kind of money that doesn't require a match."
Bolognani said the entire restoration is expected to cost about $1.2 million, with a total of about $900,000 for construction.
The grant program is part of $12.6 million awarded to 51 projects in 24 states to preserve sites that are important to the African-American struggle for equality in the 20th century.
The Clinton Church congregation began organizing in the mid-1800s when African-Americans began streaming north after the Civil War. The building on Elm Court was finished in 1887.
About nine members of the former congregation are left after longtime pastor Rev. Esther Dozier died in 2007, and the church closed its doors in 2014. The building went up for sale and sat on the market, deteriorating, until community members raised $100,000 to buy it, and to start making plans. The group was also able to hire a museum exhibits designer who had created the interpretative panels at the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite on Route 23.
The church's new incarnation will feature the legacy of Du Bois, the African-American scholar and civil rights engineer, as well as honoring Dozier, as other exhibits and events revolve. The town just held a Du Bois Festival to mark his 150th birthday.
One remaining congregant is Wray Gunn, board chairman of Clinton Church Restoration, who said this grant is a "milestone," and thanked everyone who has pitched in to take the restoration mission this far.
Bolognani said the grant money will tackle parts of the building that need urgent attention, including installing a new roof, cleaning up mold and mildew, drainage work, as well as basement and foundation work. Work will also go into the attached parsonage.
U.S. Rep. Congressman Richard Neal, D-Mass., expressed his delight.
"These grants from the Interior and National Park Service are an integral component to preserving our nation's history and keeping historic landmarks like this one in the Berkshires alive for generations to come," he said.
And state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli D-Lenox praised all the people who jump-started the effort, and also Neal, for work that resulted in an "amazing turnaround" from the time the grant application was filed.
"It's incredible, it's unprecedented," Pignatelli said. "And here we are celebrating Du Bois. This is a wonderful capstone for this celebration."
W.E.B. Du Bois, a founding member of the NAACP and internationally recognized African-American scholar, was born in Great Barrington. The town recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of his birth with a month-long festival.
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871