- Associated Press - Sunday, March 5, 2017

ORANGE, Texas (AP) - The nervous hands of 9-year-old Amorren Coleman reached out for the microphone as he stood alone on the stage at Mount Zion Baptist Church, staring wide-eyed at a buzzing congregation waiting for him to perform.

The Beaumont Enterprise (https://bit.ly/2mtKFvm ) reports Amorren’s voice trembled, overpowered by the band’s opening notes of “Break Every Chain.” He looked fearfully to the Rev. C.W. Crawford as the microphone dropped slowly from his mouth.

Crawford cried out, “If we don’t support him now, when he wants to sing for God, who will?”

Cheers rang out from the congregation.

Linda Williams, a longtime church member, yelled “You can do it, baby,” from a center aisle pew.

Amorren lifted the microphone back to his lips, smiled sheepishly and sang out with new confidence.

“That is why we are here,” said Crawford, as Amorren returned to his seat. “To be the support for our children. To be the support the community needs.”

Mount Zion, built in 1871, is widely known as Orange’s “Mother Church,” a place that nurtures spiritual and educational growth, and in its past, offered the black community sanctuary during a time of unchecked racism and segregation.

“This was where blacks could come and worship, but also where you could go to get an education, an identity,” said Essie Bellfield, Orange’s first black mayor. “That’s why we call it the Mother Church, not only because it was one of the first, but because it gave black people a home. It still does.”

Crawford’s downstairs office is lined with old desktop computers and self-help books on carpentry. The walls are stained with water damage from Hurricane Ike, whose 2008 devastation washed away historical documents and photos.

His voice grows from a low rumble to an excited squeal as he describes the importance of education in the black community - starting at its origins.

“What I find that can make us great as a people is education,” said Crawford, 70, who has been the head pastor at Mount Zion for 21 years. “The absence of knowledge is dangerous, and the echo in your brain created from ignorance brings upon violence when you are lost.”

Mount Zion first sponsored a school for blacks in the church’s basement in 1873, led by teachers L.M. and S.M. Sublett, according to Orange historian Howard Williams’ book “Orange in Pictures.”

Mount Zion’s success prompted the construction of St. Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church in 1884 on N. 14th St. as a church for Mount Zion’s members who lived farther away. Mt. Olive Baptist Church was built in 1910 and Mt. Sinai Baptist opened 10 years later. Today, Orange has 22 Baptist churches.

“These churches set the standard for what the black community strives to be,” said Henry Lazby, 84, a former chairman of the deacon board at El Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, which formed in 1949. “They’ve tried to instill the right ideas of community and fellowship.”

Mount Zion went through several renovations and moved twice, according to church documents. Classes continued despite pressure from the white community to move to make room for a dance hall, as well as a late 19th-century storm that “blew the church of its blocks”.

Mount Zion’s current location was completed in 1926.

In 1901, the Orange Colored School opened and at different times was housed at Mount Zion and Salem Methodist Church.

One of the school’s four teachers was Emma Henderson Wallace, who went on to work at Orange’s first black high school, Moton, in 1916. She became principal in 1933, according to the Texas Historical Commission, and the school was renamed after her in 1946.

Mount Zion “gave us a historical foundation of spirituality and education that allowed us to rise up as a people,” said Carol Luper, whose grandfather, the Rev. Luke Dunlap Jr., helped save the church during the Great Depression. “It was the first organized black institution that made a true mark on the community.”

Luper, 67, is a third-generation college-educated black woman. Her mother, Mary Luper-Dunlap, was an elementary teacher at E.H. Wallace, and her grandmother, Izetta Dunlap, opened the first preschool for blacks in 1952.

Luper was one of the first black students to attend Orange’s white Lutcher Stark High School, graduating in 1968. She attended and graduated from Lamar University.

“The reality is that I’m only four generations from slavery,” Luper said. “That was something that always motivated me. Education is the way to alter your economic status and your opportunity for mobility in this life.”

Luper said growing up in the church helped her cope with the some of the white community’s anger at integration.

“We were taught coping mechanisms and life lessons in the church,” Luper said. “We were taught, and we teach our children today, that although the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, what you say, as a black person, has consequences,”

Although some of the church’s responsibility for basic education has passed to public schools, Mount Zion’s spiritual and social influence endured.

Henry Lowe attended E.H. Wallace high school from 1952-54. He was baptized at Mount Zion after being drafted in 1961 so that “his soul would be saved in case he died at war”.

Lowe said, when he was a kid, “if you weren’t in church, you better be dead.”

“That was what you did, you went to church because that’s where everyone was and those were the people - the pastors and deacons - you respected most,” Lowe said.

The pastors were spokesmen for the black community, Lowe said.

“They were the only ones who felt like they could speak up to whites in power because they were educated,” Lowe said. “Let’s say someone like Mr. (H.J. Lutcher) Stark would come down and ask the pastors what the community needed. If it was feasible, they would get it.”

Churches, particular Mount Zion, acted as community centers where blacks could safely air their grievances, Lowe said.

“Churches were a place of refuge for blacks, a place where someone could defend you if you were in trouble,” Crawford said. “The pastor was there to speak on your morals. I would say the church acted as an umbrella for the community. It offered shelter of many kinds.”

That included a resting place for its congregation’s members.

The Hollywood Community Cemetery, two blocks from Mount Zion, is the oldest known black cemetery in the area. According to the Texas Historical Commission, the 2½-acre tract was given to Mount Zion trustee William King in 1875. It’s the resting place of Emma Wallace and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, the Grammy Award-winning blues guitarist.

The name of the cemetery - once the Colored Cemetery - was given by Alfred Sparrow Jr., whose father opened Sparrow Funeral Home in 1920.

“He called it that because he said everyone who is buried there is a movie star to their family,” said his son, Wayne Sparrow, who with his wife Francine, still runs the funeral home.

Today, Mount Zion - through Sparrow Funeral Home - offers to bury its poorer members for $100. Most times, Crawford waives the fee.

“When people are hurting it is our time to reach out,” he said. “Everyone deserves to have a proper resting place, and everyone has loved ones there.”

Sparrow, who was in charge of restoring graves after Hurricane Ike, said like the church, the cemetery offers value to the black community.

“When you have a physical landmark that you can claim and share with your children or grandchildren, those things are priceless,” Sparrow said. “It gives you something to hold on to and it lets you know where you came from.”

Crawford is focused on the future.

He said it is his life’s work to continue Mount Zion’s reputation as a place of refuge and education for Orange’s black community.

The “Fresh Start” educational program, run in the church’s basement and has allowed 60 people, including 62-year-old Olivia Wilson, to earn their high school diplomas since 2011.

“Progress starts with you,” Crawford said. “The question you have to ask yourself is are you doing your best?”

During the week, Crawford ministers to the community’s poor.

“I take off my suit and I roll up my sleeves to show people who are struggling how to move on, that there is another way,” Crawford said.

More than a decade ago, Crawford found Suzie Hill in a local drug house, her clothes tattered, not a penny to her name.

Hill had lost all five of her children to the state because of her drug addiction.

Crawford brought her to the church and gave her a place to stay. She got sober and regained custody of her children. She became an usher at Mount Zion and became known as the “dancing usher” for her energy during services.

On a recent Sunday, Hill said goodbye to the church. She plans to move to Dallas and live with her oldest daughter.

During the service, younger members talked about Hill’s influence on them.

“You told me I was going to be someone,” Lorie Jackson said.

Hill stood alone next to the wall at the end of the church, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief as others spoke of her in kind words.

“This church saved my life,” Hill said. “I may be leaving, but my memories of this place will always remain. There is no me without this church.”


Information from: The Beaumont Enterprise, https://beaumontenterprise.com

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