In this week’s entry into the Black History Month series we explore the history, contributions, and active role of Dade City’s historic Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church through the years.
From the Frame Meeting House to the Modern Church
Among one of the first contributions of the church to Pasco County was recorded on December 28, 1901, when, for the sum of $10, trustees joined together in deeding a ¼-acre to the Town Council of Dade City.
This ¼ acre was only a small portion of the acreage that became known as the Dade City Municipal Cemetery in 1903.
And, while the church does boast a rich history in Pasco County, there still remains a great deal of unknown, including the congregation's first pastor or even where their first services in Dade City transpired.
However, through the diligent efforts of the church in its research, it has been creditably established that by 1903, Mount Zion’s congregation had graciously accepted the appointment of a true pioneer in the Florida A.M.E. movement — Reverend Amos Thompson.
Lead by the seasoned pastor, according to Pasco County land records, on December 16, 1903, church trustees purchased a small lot in downtown Dade City.
This $75 lot fronting what was then Cherry Street, now 7th Street, became the church’s first known and permanent home.
And, with its congregation numbering at least 29, construction was completed on a single-story frame meeting house with raised ceilings, simple shingle roof, and the modern accommodations of electricity and wood burning stove.
Six years later, in 1909, work in building the church’s interest still continued.
Under the direction of the Rev. D. Dempsey, for $75, trustees purchased an adjoining lot where work commenced on erecting a new parsonage.
This grand event was so marked that in the April 1909 issue of the A.M.E. Church Review, editor Hightower T. Kealing made a brief mention of Mount Zion’s efforts when he wrote,
“Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church in Dade City is the center of attraction. \Rev. E.D. Dempsey, the faithful pastor has beautified the church and is now building a parsonage. May God ever bless this labor.”
But, this modest, single-story frame bungalow home, with its front porch, only served as a parsonage for about nine years before church growth warranted and necessitated its demolition.
According to the church’s written history, by 1918 and the end of WWI, the Mount Zion congregation witnessed an influx of new parishioners, almost doubling its membership in size since 1903.
This explosion in growth naturally brought on the need for a larger building.
So, the parsonage was torn down and construction of the new, bigger and better Mount Zion A.M.E. Church began — a slow and daunting task.
Constructed of hand-made masonry blocks, according to an application to the Department of Interior for national designation, work on the new building spanned almost three years.
Using locally made brick molds, workers toiled to make about fifty blocks at a time, patiently waiting for each batch to dry and set before moving on.
And, when finally completed in 1920, with its distinctive steeple, the edifice of the new Mount Zion A.M.E. Church was the first Protestant church in Pasco County’s to be constructed of masonry block.
From there Mount Zion’s blessings and contributions to our community only grew.
Mount Zion’s Active Role
Besides the typical religious services held at the church, Mount Zion has also been the setting for many social and political events through the years.
These events, usually held in conjunction with other nearby African-American churches, brought the community’s black residents together and united their causes and concerns in our community.
Through these efforts parishioners and church groups like the Young People’s Division (YPD) often sponsored community Easter egg hunts, church cleaning projects, meal baskets, fundraisers, picnics at Indian Pond, and the usual programs for Christmas, Easter, and Mothers Day.
During WWII, church members actively supported the war efforts by sending baskets overseas to the young men of their congregation and through providing materials to school aid clubs who made bandages.
But, after WWII members of Mount Zion quickly found themselves fighting and supporting another battle, the often impassioned Civil Rights movement.
Seeking to improve the quality of life and to change attitudes, during the 1950s and 1960s Mount Zion was brought to the forefront as the headquarters for the Pasco County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Within the church’s walls many fairness issues were discussed and debated, including school and faculty integration, job equality, and medical care—these discussions echoed throughout our nation.
And, as one church historian once said, “No congregation is stronger than its weakest member, and the members of Mount Zion were able to weather the storms and tempests that arose from time to time.”
In 1996, Mount Zion’s achievements through history were honored and recognized by the Pasco County Historical Preservation Committee with the placement of a historical plaque affixed to the historic church building.
Today, the Mount Zion’s congregation still maintains a very active existence in Pasco County and recently has enjoyed a continued renewal by revering its past, focusing on the present, and questing for eternity — this message echoed during their 113th anniversary celebrations in November 2005.
Bringing this message to life, in 2006, Mount Zion A.M.E. Church moved into a new era of growth and development with the addition of a brand new Sunday school wing.
Modeled after the historic masonry church building still in use, this wing was erected on the site of the original frame meeting house and property acquired by the church back in 1903.
This great achievement of the church in the 21st century will allow the opportunity for another 118 years of Mount Zion’s active role in Pasco County.