Art at the Intersection: Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed
Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed
Today, it’s another installment of our monthly series, “Art at the Intersection.” Where we examine the various ways the arts are pivotal in health care, city planning, veterans’ services, infrastructure, conservation, and so on. Each month, we’ll focus on another aspect of the ways the arts are helping to shape and inspire work being done in so many areas of society. The story we’re telling today is one of community, reclaiming a history, and cultural self-determination. The Mt Zion Baptist Church had been a cultural hub in its heyday, a mainstay of a vibrant Black community in Athens Ohio for almost a century. For many reasons which we’ll discuss, the population changed, the congregation dwindled and finally disbanded. By the early 2000s, the once-glorious Church was vacant and dilapidated. Today we’re looking at the efforts of the Mt Zion Baptist Church Preservation society to rehabilitate the church and repurpose it as a multi-faceted Black cultural Center and the impact of the society’s acceptance as a community participant by the Citizen’s Institute on Rural Design or CIRD—an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Housing Assistance Council that works with rural communities dealing with rehabilitation or development issues to develop design plans that also benefit the larger community while recognizing and working with the unique aspects of each specific place. Paulette Beete wrote about the church’s rehabilitation efforts and work with the CIRD design team in our magazine American Artscape early last year—I’ll have a link to the article in the show notes. We wanted to follow up and see how the project continues to fare. I reached out to Dr Tee Ford-Ahmed who is the communications director of Mt Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society. She was happy to speak with me and wanted to begin by speaking to some regional misconceptions.
Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed: I wrote a piece called I, Too, Am a Coal Miner's Daughter because folks generally don't associate Blacks with Appalachia, but we have a deep history. My father was a coal miner, and there were lots of Black coal miners. And, as a matter of fact, that's why some of those escaping from the South, going toward Buxton, Canada, seeking freedom, ended up settling here, in this part of Appalachia, which is the southeastern part of Ohio, along the Ohio River Valley. This was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Many were traveling through here. There was one way in, one way out. They were under the shadow and shade of trees. There was a coal mine industry, as well as a brick developing industry here. That's probably why this town settled a certain amount of escaping slavery, and those who were freeborn, to settle here and start their life. That's how this particular community developed.
Jo Reed: Mt Zion Baptist Church has its roots in the 19th Century not long after the end of the Civil War.
Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed: Well, the actual developing of Mount Zion started in 1872, where a small group of Christian-minded folks gathered in the home of Joseph and Henrietta Miller, to hold services. But as the congregation grew, around 1876, a frame church was built by blacks and indigenous folk on what is called Lancaster Street. And then, around 1902, a building fund was started, with the help of prominent Black businesspersons Edward and Martha Berry. They were owners of the famous Berry Hotel. And it was the Berrys that donated the land on which the church was built, and the ground was broken for the church in 1905. Services were probably held in the basement that following year, around 1906, but the church was dedicated in 1909. But, actually, the gathering and congregation started back in the 1870s.
Jo Reed: Completed in 1909, the historically Black Church is a stone structure with two main entrances both with the original oak doors featuring arched stained-glass transoms. The interior has decorative tin ceilings, an elevated wooden pulpit, raised choir area and curved oak pews. The basement includes a kitchen, pantry, as well as an assembly room. The Church has a square tower with a steepled roof and most spectacularly 14 stained glass windows.
Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed: The stained-glass windows have been valued at between a million dollars and priceless. and we later found out that they were something that had been constructed in 1906, in Japan, and that it's very difficult to duplicate.
Jo Reed: For decades, Mt Zion was a vital education hub and cultural venue for the black community and boasted a nationally-renowned choir the Gospel Voices of Faith. But the closure of the coal mines and the brick works meant a decrease in population of Athens by the 1970s, especially among its Black residents…and a decrease in the small businesses owned by Black people. But even though the was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1980, it continued to be deeply affected by that loss of population
Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed: About the year 2000, the congregants-- the older ones, of course-- had deceased and were gone on, and the congregation began to lose its membership, and eventually none. And I read an interesting statistic, and I'm not sure that I'll be quoting it correctly, but it said something like, since the end of the 1990s, there has been approximately 7,000 church closures across the country, per year. So that's not <laughs> only a fate of Mount Zion, but-- and we just had, let's see, two churches close in this community, one as recently as three weeks ago. So that decline in church going and church congregations is happening throughout America.
Jo Reed: The congregation formally disbanded in the early 2000s and the church was vacant and in growing disrepair. Enter Miss Ada Woodson Adams—she was baptized and married in Mt Zion Baptist Church and she didn’t want the community to lose the church building or its legacy. In 2013, she founded the Mt Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society and still serves as its president. Dr Ford Ahmed gives us a little background about Ms Woodson Adams.
Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed: She left the area because, of course, there was no employment for her, which was around, I guess, the '50s, and many other blacks that were in the area after the coal mine and the brick industry began to decline. They had to leave and find jobs other places. And she was gone for about 30 or 40 years. <coughs> And then, when she returned, that's when the church was in the decline, and that's when she got busy.
Jo Reed: One of the people Miss Woodson Adams reached out to was Dr Ford-Ahmed
Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed: Well, I was a professor at West Virginia State University, a historical black college in West Virginia, but I've always owned a home here. So, when I retired in '17-- 2017-- she came knocking on my door. <laughs> And she's a very persuasive person, so we now have a 15-member board, and I'm sure that anyone that she finds out that has retired, that has expertise, she's bringing them on board and has them working 24 hours, <laughs> almost, a day, in attempting to save that. So she called upon my expertise, as a grants writer, to help to develop grants to help to save the church.
Jo Reed: The plan was to the save the church building, to rehabilitate it and repurpose it as a Black Cultural Center that would serve the community living in Athens today while marking the history of the vibrant Black neighborhood that once existed there. Mt Zion Baptist Church was the last remaining structure from that era. So many Black institutions in Athens had been demolished, like the once-proud Berry Hotel.
Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed: The Berry Hotel which lasted eight decades, has been torn down. The Albany Enterprise Academy, which was one of the first institutions for blacks to learn in this area. Then there was a West Side neighborhood that had millinery shops, barbershops, had Africa Street. All of that has been torn down and destroyed. Mount Zion was the last, last significant structure that had been built by Blacks and indigenous folk. So, that made it especially important to save. we have lots of international and black students attending Ohio University. So this would be an establishment that we hope would bring them from the campus and into the community, and the community can interact with them, also. That real town-gown sprit, then, would exist here in Athens, Ohio.
Jo Reed: In fact, Dr. Ford-Ahmed turned to Ohio University bringing students in from various colleges and departments to serve as interns and help with planning and marketing.
Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed: Our first foray was into the Scripps Howard School of Journalism, the media arts college, as well as Communication Studies, and we brought on board about six interns that worked with us for one solid semester. Once they viewed the inside of the church, as anybody that walks into the church, the first thing that overwhelms them are the windows, and the way the sun filters through those windows. Well, one of the young ladies chose what we considered a rather insignificant window, that was located in a stairwell. <laughs> but it, too, was beautiful. So she incorporated that as our logo.
Jo Reed: Dr Ford-Ahmed also reached out to the fine arts college, who helped to develop a brochure, and gave design advice. Then it was on to market research.
Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed: Our next town-and-gown knock was on the College of Business, and had a class do research for us another semester. These students did an incredible job for Mount Zion, in doing research with not only current students, but alumni students. Even businesses around the town did they interview, trying to find out exactly what do they see this building become? And the result was an executive 39-page summary that not only gave us a vision for what folks really wanted, but also a financial plan, <laughs> who our competition would be, a marketing forecast. They did an extremely thorough job. And what they've found from their research was that the majority of folks wanted a soul-food restaurant, okay? <laughs> That was the number-one thing for this little Appalachian town. The second was a coworking space. And, of course, they wanted the sanctuary to become an event venue, where performing arts could happen within that area…students who write plays that do not get produced by the university itself, and we would be happy to accommodate that. The other thing that the students decided, and very, very graciously and intelligently looked at that basement, and said, "Oh, soul-food restaurant, no.” And so they said, "Well, it could be a catering or a communal kitchen." So, they turned it into a catering space, and also noted who our competition would be, in terms of catering.. So, this was some of the things that they come up with, from their research.
Jo Reed: It was Then Dr Ford-Ahmed applied for a grant from The Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design or CIRD-- an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Housing Assistance Council. Focusing on communities with populations of 50,000 or less, CIRD’s goal is to enhance the quality of life and economic vitality of rural communities through planning, design, and creative placemaking. It does this initially with comprehensive three day workshops that include designers, local officials, and most importantly community members to think, talk, and plan together how to redesign space in a way that best suits the community’s needs. Dr Ford-Ahmed says that while Miss Ada Woodson Adams—who founded the preservation was the stimulus for community involvement
Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed: It was CIRD that brought the community together, because when they came in, they start holding what they call charettes, which is a new language <laughs> that we learned. In academia, that's a workshop, okay? <laughs> But I guess a charette goes a little bit deeper. We had three or four of them, not within Athens City, but we went out into the hinterlands, and brought those people together, and talked to them about what they might like to see happen in Athens, which was a city that they kind of migrate to, et cetera, and also held them within Athens. Well, people came out for whatever, for that coffee <laughs> or that taco that we were giving free, and actually spent time working and talking with each other, putting pieces of... what do you call the little pieces of paper that you-- sticky notes on the board that was-- that-- and the CIRD folk gathered all of that information, along with the information that we had from those four or five meetings in the community, and began to structure a design-- a beautiful, artistic design-- for not only what that building would become, but what two buildings that were on site; the parsonage. We hadn't even thought about the parsonage, the one thing with the parsonage that the CIRD folks said was "This is where that restaurant could go," because it's right next to it, and there could be an outside café on the lawn that is in-between the parsonage and the church that would be the restaurant, so it would supply jobs for folk. and the Berry Mansion, that Mr. Berry built behind the church, which was there. All of that began to be incorporated into an incredible design for that entire corner.So, I have to say that it was through the stimulus of the CIRD folk that the community really became involved,
Jo Reed: CIRD presented the preservation society with designs and ideas that opened its eyes to the possibilities that site presented as they combined a vison of the community needs with an assessment of built structures already in existence.
Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed: Certainly now we had something. <laughs> We had a plan, okay? We had pictures, marvelous pictures that the architects had drawn, which showed that entire corner of what the guest house could be. We have artifacts from-- everyone throughout the area that had been here during the 1900s, etcetera had artifacts that they wanted to give us. Well, the Berry Mansion could become a museum, which is what the CIRD folk decided it should be, and then that upstairs of this beautiful mansion could be a guest accommodation And the church itself-- a beautiful inside of what that facility could be with the broadband, with a space in the basement where the students could hang-out where there could be-- the nursing department as a matter of fact said "Oh, well, we could have special things for seniors on the weekend, and our nursing students could accommodate small tests for them, etcetera," and many things developed. And of course upstairs with the sanctuary for the performing arts, and another thing that we had overlooked that the CIRD folk brought to us is the tower. The tower in the church had been known as a beacon of light. That's what they referred to it as, and it's at the north end of Court Street. The north is very significant to those who were seeking freedom, because they followed the North Star to freedom in areas like Buxton, Canada, so it was with that genius thought that I believe it was the architectural designer that said "Okay, you should put a light up there so that beacon of light will be up there at the north end of the street, and it could represent that North Star." These were the kinds of also innovative ideas that were brought to us.
Jo Reed: And because of the expansive vision of the CIRD design team, the Preservation Society began to look beyond the church property which includes the parsonage and the Berry Mansion, to that entire neighborhood of Athens….and a new idea emerged
Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed: We came up with the concept of Heritage Square. There was the Berry Hotel that had been torn down, which was at the north end Court Street. It’s popular with the students. It's filled, and traffic is moving along all the time. At the south end of that street was the World War II armory, and if you went just a little west on that street there sat the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation. If you started traveling back north on the west side there was the Southeast Ohio History Center, so we came up with the concept of Heritage Square. That would show all of the buildings from that history, and we could start to market it as heritage tourism. That all developed as a result of our interaction with CIRD, so when we mentioned that of course to the mayor and the city council it didn't take them too long to understand that here was something we might indeed be able to market, so that was the concept of Heritage Square. That grew out of our interaction also with the CIRD folk.
Jo Reed: And becoming a community participant with CIRD is truly a gift that keeps on giving….
Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed: Through the publicity that we were able to gain, first of all... Ohio had never received a grant from CIRD before. And we were the first to receive that. Well, that gave us a lot of traction, <laughs> okay? Not only in our little town, but in the Columbus newspapers, in the Cincinnati newspaper, that an Ohio entity was now receiving a National Endowment for the Arts CIRD grant. So that, of course, helped, also. And when things like that happen, that stimulates pride within the community. It was like, "Hmm. Hey! Look what we're doing," <laughs> you know? This little old tiny town here, along the Ohio River Valley, in Appalachia, is now being recognized. So that sense of pride also, I'm sure, helped to stimulate the interest from others, like our small business entrepreneurs, and stuff, who have come on board, in terms of helping us, also.
Jo Reed: Because of the CIRD grant and the adjacent publicity, other grants quickly followed.
Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed: Well, by now we're chucking in the news, right, everywhere as much as possible, and we get another grant that then-- this was a state grant that brought in someone to do an assessment of the land, and we have a company-- Hardlines I think it was called-- out of Columbus that did such a wonderful job, and I like to say we know what kind of dirt is under that church. That's how thorough this company was in terms of assessing what needed to be done to the building. And of course then with that, now with the CIRD, with the Hardlines assessment we had not only a vision that was artfully done, we also knew exactly what needed to be done architecturally, so this is when we went for the grant to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which-- we did indeed receive $73,000 to start working on the basement, and that was where our "oops" moment came in when we learned that if we start shaking up that building, that those windows would possibly fall out, because the cams that holds [sic] the stained glass together was so old, they were now like rubber bands, and any kind of disturbance to the building, they would fall out and break. So we had to go back to the National Trust, and say, "Oops. I am so sorry. We're a volunteer board. We did know what we were doing. Can we redirect our funding that you gave us to removing those windows, and storing them, before we start shaking up the building? And that's kind of where we are now. Those windows will be removed within the next month and stored so that we can then move forward,
Jo Reed: And small businesses and neighborhood people also began looking for ways to help rehabilitate the Church
Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed: With all of this publicity we had all kinds of people within the community who had participated, remember, a year or two before in the students' research who said "We want to help. We want to help." And some of those young businesses and entrepreneurs like Jackie O's Pub and Brewery, they partnered with a brewery company out of Dallas called Weathered Soul and created a beer, a really hearty-- I say "hearty-hearty," okay, chocolate kind of beer called Black Is Beautiful that premiered early in '20. It's no longer being made, but for a year we got the profits from that, and I think that first month sales from that-- they gave the entire revenue of sales to a couple of nonprofit foundations, and we were one who benefited from it that first month, $4,000. We have Court Street Coffee, who gives us their tip jar. We have Passion Works Art Studio of students with different disabilities, and the products that they sell we get 20 percent from. We have a food-to-fork [sic] market, huge market, who joined in by saying "Okay, we'll give you one cent on every dollar of sales on Saturday," so those are the kind of people that came to our aid as a result actually of our first beginnings that-- and again I have to lay it all back to CIRD's vision, and I like to mention this because we also learned another word that we had not heard before besides "charrette," okay, <laughs> was "stakeholders," that many of the folks became stakeholders, and when we start using that language people wanted to become stakeholders, because they felt like they had a part in that, and I'm sure that's what drew a lot of the small businesses and entrepreneurs onboard. They were no longer supporters. Okay, you can support, but doggone it if you become a stakeholder, you own a piece of it, and so that has brought out so many folk.
Jo Reed: And now, Dr Ford-Ahmed has become a producer in three-part docuseries that examines the history of Black life in Athens Ohio
Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed: We received a grant that we received from the Appalachian Fund through the Central Appalachian seed learning project to start a documentary series, we picked up on the fact that so many of the buildings and communities in our area had been torn down, and so we came up with the concept of "Athens Black Wall Street." Episode one was shown in Athens schools. It was shown at the Waymakers Collective conference in Knoxville, Tennessee. I just came from a conference in Keene, New Hampshire, called Radically Rural, where it was picked-up also for the Monadnock Film Festival. It has really helped a lot in marketing our concept of saving buildings. And in it we talk about how Black neighborhoods, not just Black neighborhoods in Appalachia but throughout America, has been destroyed, and we call it kind of a cultural theft that has occurred. So "Athens Black Wall Street" episode one gave the overview of the Enterprise Academy, the Berry Hotel, the West Side community that was being destroyed and a rush to save Mount Zion from the wrecking-ball fate also. Our episode two will take a microscopic look then at the Albany Enterprise Academy and the Berry Hotel, and hopefully episode three will deal specifically with how the society started and end with where we are at that particular point perhaps in 2024.
Jo Reed: Dr Ford-Ahmed is also deeply committed to teaching the young people of Athens the richness of their local history.
This past year following the premiere in the schools of "Black Wall Street" episode one of Athens we followed-up, and offered to the students a saving places challenge, and we asked the students-- following the movie they were asked to think about a place that was special for them and to explain why it would be sad or negative thing for their place to be destroyed, and we said "Okay, your submissions can be presented in written form, in visual form, in audio or social media format." We ended up selecting five students' presentations, but I would like to say this. They were all presented visually. No one picked-up on the audio, no one picked-up on the written, and I'd like to say I just knew somebody was gonna write a magnificent rap that would be-- but no. They were all visual forms that were submitted, so now we had a stakeholder, and the Athens city schools became a stakeholder, and from those we received from a senior a replica model of his bedroom, which was cast in ceramic and painted. Had his little fan from the ceiling, had his TV in there, etcetera, and his explanation was-- he said "This is my kingdom, and here I am the ruler, and if it was to be destroyed it would be like tearing a limb from my body or a branch from a tree." When we saw that Miss Aida said, "They got it. They understand the importance of saving places," and he also remarked that he had no idea that this kind of history had happened in his own community, and we even heard from the history teacher saying "You know, it made it easier for us to teach and get them to come onboard with American history after they internalize the history of their own area." And a young man with different abilities drew a picture of his middle school, and he wrote on it "My everything," so these artistic renderings that grew from a historical piece was I think extremely significant, and as a matter of fact our library put their pieces on display for two months here.
Jo Reed: The Preservation Society is now seeing how the whole region might be included in this reclamation of history
If we're able to continue to move forward with the mayor and the concept of the Heritage Square with some of the Building Ohio money that's supposed to come in perhaps we can also work with these other communities that have little museums, and all of them are along this underground railroad track, and we could then come together as a southeastern group and perhaps attract some of that funding and become an actual tourism mecca along the underground railroad here in Southeastern Ohio in Appalachia, where they don't think there was any Black folk. <laughs>
Jo Reed: I ended by asking Dr Ford-Ahmed to imagine two years into the future and to tell me what she sees for Mt Zion Baptist Church
Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed: I see it as a cultural hub that's thriving, that all kinds of things are happening. The students are downstairs. They're with their computers, and we might have some good macaroni and cheese and greens that they can have down there with their computer. There's going to be artifacts from the 1800s. We've located so many items that will make a incredible museum. There will be weddings going on. There will be students whose work never gets performed on campus perhaps doing their plays. We might even spawn a brand-new playwright or a brand-new filmmaker or an artist. We can do artist displays. It'll be a very vibrant, pulsating corner with the museum, the sanctuary, performing arts and the basement that is offering things along with the restaurant, and above it also is a coworking space that could be rented so that it will become a vibrant piece of the community that will share all kinds of experiences and artifacts from the past and hopefully keep the students engaged in terms of things that happen in our world during their time here.
Jo Reed: That was Dr Tee Ford-Ahmed who is the communications director of Mt Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society. Keep up with revitalization of the church at Mount Zion Athens.org. check out the work the CIRD does at rural-design. org and Paulette Beete’s article, “Let Black Voices Ring Again” about Mt Zion’s participation in CIRD in American Artscape. And the name of the docu-series is "Black Wall Street--Athens County" There will be links to all in the show notes. You’ve been listening to Art Works—this has been part of our ongoing series Art at the Intersection. Follow Art Works wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps people to find us. And we’d love to know your thoughts--email us at email@example.com. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Early last year, the NEA’s magazine American Artscape included the article “Let Black Voices Ring Again” about the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society’s participation in the Citizens' Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) to rehabilitate a vacant but historically significant Black church.
In this podcast, we’re following up to trace the continuing impact of CIRD’s work on the Athens, Ohio, project and how the efforts to repurpose the church have continued to progress. We’re joined by the director of communications for the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society, Dr. Tee Ford-Ahmed, who shares the history of the Mount Zion Baptist Church, of the vibrant Black community that once existed in Athens, Ohio, and the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society’s determination to preserve that history and repurpose the church as a Black cultural center while retaining its stunning architectural features.
Dr. Ford-Ahmed talks about bringing in students enrolled in various programs at Ohio University—another Athens institution—to work as interns and help the preservation society develop strategies and plans. She also discusses how the preservation society’s participation with CIRD led to other opportunities—including additional grants, greater community involvement in the project, and the creation of a documentary series called Black Wall Street Athens County—as well as how the plans for the church have grown and evolved, the current state of the project, and where she sees it going in the next couple of years.
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