Clinton Church Restoration group buys AME Zion Church

W.E.B. Du Bois' church to be devoted to African American history, culture

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This story has been modified to correct the name of the organization that provided a grant for the project, and to reflect that it is the first African-American church in the community, but not the county. Also, Ed Abrahams is not a board member.

GREAT BARRINGTON — The first African-American church built in Great Barrington is now in the hands of a nonprofit dedicated to restoring it and turning it into a center for local black history and culture.

"It's the beginning of a new era for the church and Great Barrington," said Wray Gunn, a former member of the Clinton African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, who is now chairman of Clinton Church Restoration.

"It will be a community asset and I think we're on our way," he added.

Clinton Restoration purchased the building Wednesday from North Eastern Episcopal District of the A.M.E. Zion Conference. The group has raised $110,000 for the project; $70,000 covered the purchase and the rest will be used to jump start the initial restoration work, the group said in a statement.

The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and on the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail, began to deteriorate after the church closed in 2014. Several attempts by developers to purchase it fell through, while roof leaks continued to take a toll, creating serious mold and structural issues.

A group of some last remaining Clinton A.M.E. Zion members, local citizens and the Housatonic Heritage Foundation got together to raise money for the project and volunteers covered the roof last fall to protect the church from another damaging winter.

The Elm Street building was completed in 1887 after African-Americans from the South moved to the area in the mid-1800s. In the 1860s the congregation began to form and construction began later.

The scholar and author W.E.B. Du Bois, a Great Barrington native, occasionally attended the church as a child, according to University of Massachusetts history professor and Du Bois scholar David Glassberg.

And Gunn said the new incarnation of the church building will "expand on the name of W.E.B. Du Bois," as well as other local noted African-Americans.

Gunn said community support saved the church.

"I am thrilled because of the local support and the idea that the Clinton Church Restoration wanted to have the building as a community icon, and the place that illustrates the history of blacks in Great Barrington."

Board member Dennis Powell, who is also president of the Berkshire County chapter of the NAACP said "the African-American stories in this county are rich and full of inspiration for all."

"I look forward to bringing the lives of W.E.B. Du Bois, the late Rev. Esther Dozier, and others to the forefront in this area," he added. Dozier was a longtime pastor at the church. She died in 2007.

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He said there is a "strong history" here, and that the church, when renovated, will have artifacts and a library, among other things.

But first it has to be stabilized and fixed up. Gunn said it would likely cost around $300,000 to renovate and board members have already started writing grants.

With a laugh, he said there is a person on the board for "every department."

"Thank goodness for that," Gunn added, noting that he's a bit anxious, since "my name is on everything."

"So we're going to fix [the church up] come hell or high water," he laughed.

Ed Abrahams, who helped mobilize the community, said the renovation would reflect the vision for what will happen inside the church, which isn't completely settled yet.

Local architect Diego Gutierrez, a board member who leads the restoration building committee, said the first step was to get a historic structure report by an architectural firm that specializes in historic preservation.

And a grant through the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail will help the board hire Partners for Sacred Places, a nonprofit that provides technical assistance for both programming and architectural design for historic places of worship that will be transformed into community assets.

"They will help us refine [all the plans] to a realistic mission and architectural plan," Gutierrez said. "We'll marry those things together and have a real idea of what [the church] will be and a real vision of what the building will look like."

Veronica Jackson, who designed the interpretive panels at the W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site, has helped the group with its vision for the building, and the group will continue working from those plans.

In the meantime, the board, which is looking for new members, will continue fundraising, Gutierrez said.

And Gunn said the seven remaining members of the congregation will do what they've always done since the church closed, which is to attend several other local churches.

"We float around," he said.

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871.


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