hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues December 2018-January 2019


Honoring black history in the Berkshires

Group aims to transform former church into visitor, cultural center

Beth Carlson and Wray Gunn Sr. stand in front of the former Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church in Great Barrington. Carlson and Gunn both serve on the board of a 2-year-old nonprofit group that hopes to transform the building into a visitor and cultural center celebrating local African-American history. Susan Sabino photoBeth Carlson and Wray Gunn Sr. stand in front of the former Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church in Great Barrington. Carlson and Gunn both serve on the board of a 2-year-old nonprofit group that hopes to transform the building into a visitor and cultural center celebrating local African-American history. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer


Before it closed four years ago, the former Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church was a focal point of the black community in the southern Berkshires for more than 125 years.
And if supporters of a local nonprofit group are successful, the wooden church building, just a block west of Main Street in the center of Great Barrington, will soon be preserved and restored as a visitor and cultural center celebrating the area’s African-American history.

The effort to save the former church, which was built in 1887 and has been vacant and deteriorating since 2014, is being organized by Clinton Church Restoration Inc., a local nonprofit group that was organized two years ago.

“There are amazing bonds between the entire local community and that church, and people were worried about what might happen to the property if it were sold,” said Beth Carlson, who helped to organize the effort and now serves on the nonprofit’s board. “They didn’t want to see it demolished.”

The church, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is located at 9 Elm Court, about a block west of the post office on Main Street.

The restoration group says it plans to renovate the structure in its original style and convert it into an African American Heritage and Visitor Center, with an emphasis on black history and contemporary culture in the region.

The visitor center would include exhibits and scholarly materials that tell the story of the church’s 130-year history and the development of the local African-American community. Although the black population of Great Barrington has always been comparatively small, it has included some notable figures, and the area played a key role in an 18th century court battle that effectively ended slavery in Massachusetts.

The new center also would honor the legacy of Great Barrington’s most famous native son, W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), who became the first black man to receive a doctorate from Harvard University, and who helped to found the NAACP in 1909. Although the Clinton church wasn’t built until Du Bois was 19 (and he actually attended the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington as a child), he would have known its founders, and the preservation group’s Web site quotes scholars describing the Clinton church as “a place of continual and important social reference for him.”

The project’s supporters say the restored church will include space for workshops, performances and other gatherings related to African-American life and culture, both historical and contemporary.


‘Most endangered’ site
Clinton Church Restoration already has received several grants to help stabilize the structure and get started, and Carlson said the group hopes to complete construction and open the center in 2021.
But she added that the exact timetable will depend on financial resources and other factors. The project will require an extensive budget of at least $1 million.

“We haven’t finalized the numbers yet,” Carlson said.
The organization will continue to raise funds and is planning a capital campaign.
The effort got a boost in October, when Preservation Massachusetts, a statewide nonprofit group, included the church on its list of the state’s “most endangered historic resources.” The statewide preservation advocacy group described the wooden structure as “a distinctive example of 19th century vernacular church architecture.”

In announcing the designation, Jim Igoe, the president of Preservation Massachusetts, expressed strong support for local efforts to save the former church.

“This small church has a powerful and important story to tell and has been a center of the African-American community for 130 years,” he said. “The efforts and dedication of Clinton Church Restoration are to be applauded, and we look forward to working with them to ensure that this landmark building endures to tell its story and inspire new ones for many generations to come.”


Donations, grants support work
The 2,200-square-foot church building and attached parsonage was deconsecrated and placed on the market in 2016 by the North Eastern District of the A.M.E. Zion Conference. (A.M.E. stands for African Methodist Episcopal.)

In November 2016, a group of about 25 people formed Clinton Church Restoration and quickly began to raise funds to buy and save the structure. The group included elected officials, members of the former congregation, local historians, activists, preservationists and other concerned citizens.

To set up a formal framework, they established a nonprofit organization with a seven-member governing board and a 15-member advisory panel.

Within months, they raised $110,000 from 400 donors, which enabled them to buy the property for $70,000 in June 2017. The balance of money raised was allocated for initial repairs to stabilize the building.

The group also commissioned an architectural study and historical survey and held a series of meetings to plan the project.

Among the funds already received to help advance the project is a National Park Service African-American Civil Rights grant of $388,000 allocated through the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area. Also known as Housatonic Heritage, that organization was designated by Congress in 2006 to heighten appreciation of the region, preserve its natural and historical resources, and improve the quality of life and economy of the area.

The church is part of Housatonic Heritage’s African-American Heritage Trail, which encompasses 29 towns along the Housatonic River valley in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Clinton Church Restoration also received a $75,000 emergency grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission to pay for installation of a new cedar shingle roof.

And in May, voters at town meeting approved a plan to give the project a $100,000 grant from Great Barrington’s Community Preservation Act funds.

Community input from two multi-day planning sessions held in 2017 has been incorporated into a visioning report and preliminary interpretative plan for the project.

The first priority is to stabilize the building. An assessment by local architects Clark & Green revealed structural damage caused by a leaking roof and extreme mold and mildew associated with drainage issues in the basement.

Carlson said the roof replacement being paid for with the emergency state grants is the first step toward correcting these problems.

Another recommendation is to improve drainage and raise the building to make the church’s basement social hall a usable, code-compliant space. Also planned are modifications to make the structure fully accessible to people with disabilities.


Hub of a community
Wray Gunn Sr., the chairman of Clinton Church Restoration, was a member of the church’s congregation for many years and has deep family roots in the Berkshires, dating back to the Revolutionary War.

“I was one of the last of the old-timers at the church,” Gunn recalled.
Gunn is an analytical chemist who, before his retirement, worked for Specialty Minerals Inc., a company with local operations in Adams and Canaan, Conn. He said he first attended the Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church in the 1940s.

By the time it closed in 2014, he said, the church’s membership had dwindled to about seven people. The building was too expensive for the tiny congregation to maintain, and it needed a great deal of work.

But when others stepped forward to help save the building, Wray wanted to be part of the effort.
“I became involved in this project because the church has been an icon for the black community, and I didn’t want to see it torn down,” he said. “It holds the memories of the people who founded it and the generations who attended and kept it going over the years.”

The church started as an informal A.M.E. congregation in the 1860s, with the first recorded meeting around 1870. The congregation laid the cornerstone for the current church building in 1886, and the building was completed and dedicated in 1887.

Its congregation came from across southern Berkshire County, from Lenox to Sheffield, and also from northern Connecticut.

Beyond its role as a place for worship, the church also became a hub of social life and for making connections among people in the region’s black community.

“It was a gathering place,” Gunn said. “There were dinners and other social occasions regularly.”
The church also helped newcomers to the region, he added.

“Blacks in the South who had families in the Berkshires often migrated north to this area,” he said. “If they found jobs, they stayed and became established here. The church was where the people who came from the South initially connected with the community and got to know people.”


Honoring people, history
Gunn said that at one time, the church had between 50 and 60 members.
“After the 1960s, membership gradually began to fall off,” he said.

He credited the church’s first woman pastor, the Rev. Esther Dozier, as an important influence in keeping the church alive into the early 21st century. The new cultural center will honor Dozier, who died in 2007, Gunn said.

“She was a wonderful person and opened the doors to anyone who came to the church,” he said.
The center also will honor Du Bois, a sociological scholar, writer, historian and civil-rights leader who was born and raised in Great Barrington. Although Du Bois left the area to attend college and lived elsewhere in his adult life, he maintained a connection with the Berkshires. And scholars say Du Bois’ early life in Great Barrington helped to shape his views and values.
“He appreciated this area, and he especially loved the Housatonic River and the pastures -- and wrote about them as an adult,” Gunn said.

Du Bois also had a connection to the Clinton church.
“He was not a member, but he did attend the church at times … and participated in activities there,” Gunn said. “Also, as a young reporter, he covered things like the church sewing club.”
Gunn said the church is the only structure still standing in Great Barrington that has a direct connection to Du Bois.

In addition to offering public exhibits about Du Bois, Gunn said one of the goals of the church restoration project is to create a resource and research center and a repository for Du Bois’ archives.

“Ultimately, it would be ideal for this to be a place where scholars and others can come to study Du Bois,” he said.

Although Berkshire County’s early African-American population was small, it included some influential figures. Initially it was made up of both free persons and slaves.

Among them was Agrippa Hull, an ancestor of Gunn and a freeman who lived in the mission village of Stockbridge.

Hull served in the Colonial army in the Revolutionary War as an orderly to Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish engineer who designed and supervised the construction of key military fortifications for the Colonial side, including one in the Hudson Valley at West Point. Kosciuszko’s experience with Hull influenced him to favor greater equality for blacks. Hull later became a community leader and the largest black landowner in Stockbridge.

Another early black resident of the region who rose to prominence was Elizabeth Freeman, who also known as MumBet. She was the first slave to successfully sue for her freedom in Massachusetts – in a case decided in 1781 by the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington. Freeman’s case was cited later that year in a ruling by the state’s highest court that essentially outlawed slavery in Massachusetts.


For more information and updates on the effort to redevelop the former Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church, visit clintonchurchrestoration.org.