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Mt. Zion from the ground up

by Amy Kingsley

Laughlin Memorial Methodist Church was organized in 1908, built in 1911 and renovated twice, once in 1949 and again in 1967. In its current incarnation, the church seats close to 300 people on 38 worn pews. It is presided over by the Rev. Alfonza Everett, a police officer turned Methodist preacher dressed this morning in Easter whites.

Everett is a bear of a man who wears suspenders under his robes, and he sweeps onto the pulpit like a cumulus cloud caught in a current. Today Everett is preaching the Good News, and he’s got nearly a full house here to witness it. Turned out in the best of their Sunday best, churchgoers who’ve been attending Laughlin for decades arrive – children and grandchildren in tow – starting well before 11 a.m. and trickle in throughout the two-hour service. Examples of fine millinery abound – flowerpot, capeline and swinger hats in shades of red, black, yellow and brown.

Former Greensboro City Councilwoman Claudette Burroughs-White settles into a pew near the center of the church at about 10 minutes to eleven. She’s accompanied by sitting Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson and her husband. Burroughs-White wraps herself in a ticked brown overcoat and wears a floppy hat. She’s been attending Laughlin since childhood, following in the footsteps her grandfather laid nearly a century ago when he, along with five other area families, defected from Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, a place of worship organized in 1865 that lent its name to this community.

In the first half of the century, and even well into the second, the name “Mt. Zion” emblazoned more than just a church. It was stamped on a grocery store, a street sign and even a primary school; the name denoted a community organized around the nucleus of Mt. Zion School, Mt. Zion AME, and Laughlin Memorial.

Today the name is harder to find. Newer developments like Penrose Estates and Nealtown Farms – whose primary crop appears to be vinyl-sided housing – have obscured the older moniker. And the churches, which draw their membership from area families like the Neals, Chavises, Troxlers, Graves and Bigelows, have recently welcomed new spiritual neighbors: the shotgun-style Divine Truth Deliverance Church and expansive Evangel Fellowship.

Evangel left the Mt. Zion community about six years ago for larger quarters – big enough to hold some 2,000 members – and left behind Malachi House, a drug treatment facility. Recently the program director at Malachi House petitioned the zoning board for permission to open a boarding house that would hold six men transitioning from treatment to independent living. His proposal ignited opposition from two Anderson Street residents, Ruth Warren and Carolyn Pritchett, worried about the future of a community built from the ground up by a group of African-American farmers. It is not the first time residents of Mt. Zion – the community adjacent to the White Street Landfill – have been embattled.

But on this Easter afternoon, during the prelude to ham-and-fixings brunches, Laughlin’s parishioners listen as Everett delivers his sermon.

“Today is all about love,” he says. “The best thing you can do is turn to the one you can’t stand and find some love for that person.”

“As a child, I always thought, ‘Man if I can just get out of here,'” Burroughs-White says.

Her grandfather moved to Mt. Zion, which was then outside the Greensboro city limits, around the turn of the 20th century. Her grandmother’s family had been there even longer.

Mt. Zion is a small community, geographically speaking, that stretches from Penry Street down Huffine Mill Road and includes Anderson, Mt. Zion and Balboa Streets. Some folks include Nealtown Road within the nebulous boundaries, but most longtime residents consider it a separate community, an insular place settled by the original Neals and their descendants.

Martin Donnell, a former slave, was the first African American to move to Mt. Zion, where he purchased land from James and Pauline Gant. It was Donnell who donated the original quarter acre upon which Mt. Zion AME was built.

When Donnell moved in, white farmers, who provided jobs to the African Americans who moved in after Donnell, owned most of the land. In time the racial makeup shifted, and Mt. Zion became a majority black community. The community wasn’t prosperous in a monetary sense – most of its residents were middle- or lower middle-class – but it thrived.

The split that created Laughlin Memorial wasn’t acrimonious. The churches, which sit on opposite sides of Huffine Mill Road, still hold joint choir practices and used to share circuit preachers. Burroughs-White’s grandfather attended Laughlin, and her grandmother belonged to Mt. Zion.

Mt. Zion Elementary was originally housed in the AME church, and then eventually relocated across the street in buildings that multiplied from one to a half dozen. Claudette Burroughs-White attended when the school consisted of six or seven rooms and a couple of buildings. She loved going to school, and eventually became one of two students who integrated UNCG, known then as Womens College.

“I used to think my grandfather had acres and acres of land,” she said.

During the summer, Burroughs-White and her siblings helped her grandfather plant and pull tobacco.

“I hated tobacco,” she said. “Those gummy, hot summers and hard, hard work.”

She whined about the work so much her grandfather sent her to the kitchen, where Burroughs-White worked to prepare the midday meal for everybody working in the field. Around 1 p.m., the hottest part of the day, the workers would break for lunch, usually a concoction of whatever produce was freshest: corn, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, green beans and squash.

The youth of Mt. Zion earned money by their summer labors to spend on Mary Janes and penny loafers, new slacks and dresses for the upcoming school year.

“If kids today had to work as hard as we did,” Burroughs-White said. “They’d love school too.”

She lived with her grandfather, her mother and her two siblings in a log house near the farm. After the war, they moved into a converted army barracks – one of several left behind in the neighborhood. Her aunt Ruby painted it white and added a nice porch. It was big enough for the five-person family.

“Growing up I belonged to everyone in the community,” she said. “That’s one of the things that perhaps is missing these days.”

The school stabilized the neighborhood. Parents who worked in and around the community volunteered there, and student events like May Day, spelling bees and fairs had a way of traveling between the tiny school and two churches.

“All your special activities happened at the school or the churches,” she said.

The churches are still there and in good repair, but the school, closed in 1984, is fenced off and deteriorating. Like many other black schools in Guilford County, Mt. Zion perished with integration. Its principal and teachers found jobs elsewhere in the city school system.

In 1956, the Rev. Liston Sellers was a student pastor straight out of Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury. He accepted a position at Laughlin Memorial and moved to Mt. Zion.

“This was a blooming community,” he said. “At that time they had two churches that cooperated beautifully, and Mt. Zion School was a very important part of the community.”

When he arrived, Mt. Zion was still largely rural, but it was moving increasingly toward industrialization. Many of the men worked at Cone Mills or other manufacturing plants.

Still, the community coalesced around the churches. Laughlin, still considered a rural church, was paired with another Methodist church in Ramseur; together they constituted a charge. Children spent their free time picking blueberries and blackberries.

Sellers left Mt. Zion to take a position in Bass Chapel in 1958, but he returned in the 1970s for a three-year hitch.

“[The community] had changed drastically during that period of time,” he said.

No one farmed anymore, Sellers said; instead everyone had taken factory work. The children he had known during his first tour through Mt. Zion held professional positions.

After a period of explosive growth, enrollment in Mt. Zion School plummeted in the mid-1960s. Students who had traveled from nearby neighborhoods to attend had moved to new schools closer to home. The generation of young professionals began to move away from the neighborhood.

Mt. Zion had also had a community cannery during its agricultural heyday, where extension agents taught home economics and teenagers held dances. As the population of farmers and school children declined, the farm agents came less often, and eventually they stopped altogether.

“That really left a vacuum,” Sellers said.

By the 1970s, many of the older community members Sellers had come to know had moved off the scene. Their children, many of them young professionals, claimed leadership positions at Laughlin Memorial and Mt. Zion.

Many members of that older generation have passed away or live in nursing homes. Many of their children still attend church at Laughlin, and some still live in the area.

Sellers does not begrudge Evangel Fellowship’s incursion into the neighborhood. A small community able to support two churches ought to be willing to tolerate another, after all.

“From my perspective, if they were able to buy the land and able to survive, then we ought to let them stay there,” he said. “The more evangelical churches have moved into a lot of neighborhoods like this and have been very successful.”

Carolyn Pritchett remembers Easters during her childhood, when the churches would use Mt. Zion School for holiday activities like picnics and egg hunts. She learned how to roller-skate on the blacktop, after her lessons in the three R’s which she first employed at Dudley High School and then at Page, where she was one of the first African Americans to graduate.

“It was part of our community,” she said, “and now they’ve taken that away.”

A sign, overly optimistic by at least five years, sticks out of the weedy lot of the Mt. Zion School. It hails the property, derelict for more than 20 years, as the future home of the Evangel Fellowship Training School, projected to open in 2002. Representatives from the Evangel Fellowship did not return calls about the property.

Before Evangel bought the abandoned school, it was rumored that Mt. Zion AME made the county an offer, Pritchett said. Evangel Fellowship, a majority African-American congregation that belongs to the relatively young Church of God in Christ denomination, offered more money.

The school is the third property Evangel purchased in an area no larger than two blocks square, bordered on three sides by Mt. Zion, Anderson and Balboa streets. Pritchett was one of two outspoken advocates against the most recent project – a boarding house for Malachi graduates without a place to live.

She said she’s concerned about crime, but the acquisitions have also affected her personally. Pritchett still lives on the land her parents farmed, and she still has family members that attend Mt. Zion AME.

After she graduated from Page High School, where she struggled for a year to catch up to classmates educated in better-equipped white schools, Pritchett attended King’s Business College and earned an accounting degree. After working in accounting for several years, Pritchett decided to open a group home for adults. The Mt. Zion native couldn’t open her facility near Malachi House, which boards anywhere between 70 and 90 clients, so she moved it over to Holt Avenue.

When Eugene Peterson, the program manager at Malachi House, proposed opening the boarding house, members of the zoning commission first encouraged him to look elsewhere, outside a neighborhood already crowded with human service agencies. Peterson said he could not find any other suitable place, but Pritchett doesn’t think that is true. She’s worried that Peterson and Evangel Fellowship want to buy her elderly neighbor’s property and turn the historic Mt. Zion neighborhood into a compound.

“This is where I would love to stay,” she said. “This was my mama and daddy’s land and I don’t want to leave it. It is the only thing I have left of them.”

Pritchett’s parents helped pave some of the roads inside the Mt. Zion neighborhood. Her neighbor and partner in opposition to Malachi House and Evangel Fellowship, Ruth Warren, was largely responsible for getting utilities extended to the remote neighborhood.

Pritchett grew up in a modest four-bedroom house she shared with her parents and three brothers. Her father raised hogs, and for a while her family operated the Mt. Zion store. Like Burroughs-White, she remembers feeling a deep sense of community. Young people in the neighborhood played baseball, danced in the cannery or above Latta’s Store and swam at Forest Lake Country Club. Younger kids went to Latta’s Store every day to buy sour pickles and candy.

Pritchett has grandchildren now, but they can’t play basketball at Mt. Zion like her brothers and children used to. Zoe Barber Park – on the land where the cannery used to be – has a hoop, but it’s mostly older teenagers and adults that play there. So Pritchett rolls a portable basketball goal into the street in front of her house.

Malachi House moved to Balboa Street from Anderson, just around the corner. Pastor Cliff Lovick runs the program, which has been honored by the Wesley Long Foundation.

“This program has made a difference not just in the Mt. Zion community, but also in the community of Greensboro,” Lovick said.

The Mt. Zion community has not been untouched by drug abuse, Lovick said, and Malachi House has successfully steered addicts back into society. He is adamant that most of the community members have welcomed the facility.

“For the most part we have been a light for the community,” he said. “We definitely fight against drugs and all the things they do to our community. One of the things we have is a voice to stand up against that darkness.”

He said the clients venture into the community around Christmastime to distribute trees, and Burroughs-White said some of the men at Malachi House have done yard work for Mt. Zion’s older residents. Malachi’s citywide projects have included starting a youth basketball camp and implementing an at-risk drug prevention program.

Ruth Warren, who is many years past retirement, is concerned that facilities like Malachi House focus too much on helping people from outside the community and offer little to those who have lived there for generations. Mt. Zion is an old neighborhood; younger families have moved into the Nealtown Farms and Penrose Estates developments, but the residents of Anderson Street are still predominately retired. So while the community brims with facilities for drug addicts and troubled youth, there are no services for the elderly.

When Burroughs-White represented District 2, which includes Mt. Zion, her constituents complained about the traffic from Evangel Fellowship, back when the metal and brick warehouse served as the mega-church’s sanctuary. That problem vanished when Evangel moved and left behind Malachi House.

“Malachi House has helped the community in many ways,” she said. “They really have been an okay neighbor.”

The former councilwoman said she would like to see Mt. Zion School preserved in a way that benefits the community.

“We really could make it the beacon for this community,” she said. “Otherwise, as the others grow old and die, our history will disappear. I’ve seen it happen in so many places.”

On April 22, 1953, Claudette Burroughs-White dressed herself in church finery and, along with her brother, sister, mother and grandfather, crossed the street to watch television at a neighbor’s house. The occasion was her aunt’s wedding, which was broadcast on the nationally syndicated show “Bride and Groom.”

The aunt and her fiancé had submitted their love story to CBS and won the privilege of entering holy matrimony live on national television. It was a big community event.

And an unusual one. Most major life changes are observed in this neighborhood inside the walls of its two original churches.

Laughlin Memorial has a high, peaked roof parked on a narrow brick frame. Mt. Zion AME across the street has two rows of windows and a flatter crown. Mt. Zion sits on top of the largest hill in the neighborhood.

Inside Laughlin is at once airy and narrow, with a wood-paneled ceiling the color of honey mahogany. Ten pewter chandeliers hang in the space above the parishioners’ bowed heads. Built before multimedia, the sanctuary is cozy and has just two levels – one for the members and a pulpit for the preacher – separated by a six-inch step. A cross, lit from behind, hangs against a backdrop of baby blue tile.

“It’s so rooted in the community,” Burroughs-White says. “One of the major problems we have is that it’s pretty much a family church.”

Burroughs-White once figured out that 26 of the 29 choristers were her cousins. One of those is Emma Chavis, today’s soloist.

Chavis has lived and worshiped in Mt. Zion for 70 years, ever since her parents moved her there from Rockingham County at age seven. She participates in the community choir, a collaboration with Mt. Zion AME, and says the two churches cooperate today as much as they ever have. When asked what has changed in 70 years she answers: “Well, we used to have a school here.”

Her children went there. Chavis says she doesn’t know much about the members of the Evangel Fellowship, except that they are very friendly. In their new facility across town, they would be celebrating the holiday the same as Laughlin’s smaller congregation.

On Easter Sunday the Rev. Everett is celebrating not only the resurrection of Jesus, but also the baptism of baby Charlotte Adoley Brown. Everett beckons family and parish toward the holy water. Then he welcomes the church’s newest member.

The sanctuary is in fact teeming with little ones, all primed for afternoon egg hunts. The church, poised to celebrate its centennial, is still looking awfully youthful. The future for the surrounding neighborhood is less clear than the one offered inside cathedral walls.

“I think it’s going to continue to become urban,” Burroughs-White says. “And I think it’s going to continue to have pockets of poverty. It’s awfully hard to predict. Once the older families are gone, I don’t know what’s going to stabilize this community. I don’t think it’ll ever be like it was in history, and there’s not a whole lot left to preserve.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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