In 1909 a group led by Reverend Sandy Lyons organized themselves as the Second Baptist Church in a one room schoolhouse in the 300 block on North Hartford. They soon decided that they did not care to be second in anything and changed their name to the Mount Zion Baptist Church. It was said that Mount Zion was the highest point in Jerusalem whereupon the city of God rested.
In the early days of the fledgling congregation a property was purchased as 419 North Elgin with plans to raise money for a new church. In 1914 Reverend R. A. Whitaker Assumed the duties as Pastor and very soon faced a serious challenge. The school building they had been using ceased to be available and they were forced to move with only 3 days notice. They temporarily moved in what had been a dance hall on North Greenwood. As soon as possible they built a frame tabernacle adjacent to their new property at Fourth and North Elgin and began to make plans for a permanent home.
Several anxious years of planning went into the construction of a permanent home for Mount Zion. Under Reverend Whitaker some $42,000 was raised but the cost of the proposed building was $92,000. Just when it appeared that plans would have to be abandoned a Jewish contractor came forward with an unsecured loan for $50,000. His faith and confidence in the new congregation was soon to be justified.
In 1916 construction on the new church was begun and five years later the $92,000 edifice was completed. An enthusiastic congregation held its first services on April 4th, 1921 while assuming a $50,000 loan in doing so. Their joy was short lived, as soon the "Church that Faith Built" was heading for more dark days.
In two months time Tulsa would experience the worst race riot in US history. At this time Tulsa had a very prosperous black business community. The financial strength of what was known as the "Black Wall Street" was second in financial dealing only to New York City.
It was during this time that a young black man was accused of assaulting a young white girl working as an elevator operator in the white business district. Before any real sense of the incident could be made the incident quickly escalated into a white lynch mob and an effort by the black community to protect the accused. This quickly escalated into an all-out but one sided war. Within 24 hours the once prosperous black community was ashes and rubble. Most homes and businesses and no less that 23 black churches including Mount Zion were burned to the ground.
Reverend Whitaker organized what relief he could. Members of Mount Zion set up a distribution center for what food and supplies they could gather for use of the devastated community. The pastor and members of the church gathered within the ruins for prayer and discussion. They were relieved to learn that they did have insurance, then dismayed to find that it had a clause that excluded an act of riot. The only way they could avoid obligation for a $50,000 mortgage on a pile of smoking rubble was to declare bankruptcy.
After considerable discussion the decision was made that the debt was a matter of honor made in good faith by the lender. They would pay off the mortgage as best they could. Some members did leave, but most stayed and spent evenings and weekends clearing away the debris, readying the site for rebuilding.
Exhausted and in ill health, Reverend Whitaker resigned as pastor. A series of ministers lent service for brief periods of time. Sometimes there was no pastor but the members pressed on. For the next five years the church struggled with the issue of the debt. At times it looked like they were facing foreclosure. The burden of debt made it difficult to call a pastor.
In 1928 Reverend Hamilton came and became involved in a fierce debate regarding the unpaid mortgage. He led a group who felt that the mortgage was not a legal debt because much of it was made up of "Good Faith" lenders. Money had been lent with no hard assets to secure it. Because it ws lent to a church it was a matter of good faith that the debt would be honored without security. This debate split the church. Pastor Hamilton resigned and withdrew with a large number of the members to start another church called New Hope Baptist. Those who remained continued to slowly pay off the old debt. By late 1937 they were holding services in the dirt floored basement of the ruined church and had paid off about three-fourths of the mortgage.
In 1937 Reverand J. H. Dotson was called to be pastor. Within 6 months 60 new members joined Mount Zion and $3,000 had been raised. Using several effective fund raising techniques Reverend Dotson continued to bring in new members and to chip away at the remaining mortgage. On November 23, 1942 the mortgage on the first structure was paid in full.
As soon as the first mortgage was paid Reverend Dotson began an aggressive building fund to pay for a new church. The story of how this small congregation managed to survive great hardship with honor was retold widely in papers and magazines all over the nation. As a result, contributions towards a new church came in from people who were moved by the story of the struggling congregation.
W.S. and J.C. Latimer were trained architects and members of Mount Zion. The two brothers drew up the plans for the new Mount Zion. It was to be larger and more expensive that the old church. It is this design that Rev. Dotson is so excited about in the photo above.
Once the construction began Rev. Dotson could be found at the construction site every day, watching, checking, handing bricks to the workman, providing encouragement. Finally in November of 1952 the fine new church was dedicated.
In a few years Pastor Dotson's health began to fail and he asked for permission to call Reverend G. Calvin McCutchen to be his assistant. In 1957 Reverend McCutchen was installed as the Pastor for Mount Zion.
Reverend McCutchen was to serve Mount Zion for 50 years. During his tenure the mortgage was retired, a number of improvements were made to the property, and the membership increased. In 1985 ground was broken for a large Family Life Center adjacent to the church which was completed one year later on Palm Sunday 1986.
There were difficult times when the I-244 Expressway was completed very close to Mount Zion, and Urban Renewal took out a large section of old business and residential building just south of the church. This caused a decline in attendence as prople were displaced from the area. Less than 1% of the membership is within walking distance of the church. Members now come from all over Tulsa, some as far away as Bixby, Glenpool, and Broken Arrow.
Since building the Family Life Center, other facility improvements include the remodeling of the Sanctuary, the J. H. Dotson Study Hall, the R. A. Whitaker Annex; development of "Faith Park;" and the establishment of a Computer Lab. On November 8, 1998, the Family Life Center was renamed "G. Calvin McCutchen, Sr. Family Life Center" in honor of Pastor McCutchen.
On Sunday, August 15, 1999, there was another fire at Mt. Zion. This time it was a joyous celebration of God's blessings with the burning of the mortgage on the G. Calvin McCutchen, Sr. Family Life Center.
After 50 years of faithful service Reverend McCutchen retired in 2007 and continues to be active in the ministry of Mount Zion. The baton has been passed to Dr. Leroy M. Cole who serves as the current Pastor of Mount Zion.
The only thing remaining from the church that burned is this basement room that served as sanctuary for a time. On August 16, 2009 Mount Zion Baptist Church celebrated its 100th anniversary celebration. The theme was "We Have Come This Far By Faith".
Mt. Zion Baptist Church was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on September 5, 2008
(Older photos courtesy of the Beryl Ford Collection/Rotary Club of Tulsa, Tulsa City-County Library and Tulsa Historical Society, and Mount Zion Baptist.)