May 12, 2024 Blog

By Lynn Pechuekonis (Vice Chair, Harpers Ferry – Bolivar Historic Town Foundation)

The congregation of worshippers known as First Zion Baptist Church first planted their roots in Harpers Ferry in the early 1890s, having made their way over from Virginia. John Henry Napper, known for his “great zeal for serving God” was one of the church’s co-founders and first deacons. The small group met for a while in the basement of a local home and began constructing a building on West Ridge Street in 1894.

“The early members labored hard with their hearts and hands to erect this building,” wrote an anonymous church historian. “Men and women volunteered to ‘scoop’ the foundation with picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows. They assisted the masons by carrying mortar in buckets and stones in their aprons. Soon the walls were ready for the corner stone laying, and their hearts burst out and they shouted for joy.”

This congregation became one of three African-American churches serving the thriving Black community in Harpers Ferry through the first three-quarters of the 20th century. First Zion claimed well over fifty members in 1928, which was about its peak enrollment. Over the years, the church was served by families with lasts names like Green, Jackson, Napper, Arter, Twyman, Goens, Conway, Johnson, and others, most of whom resided in either Harpers Ferry or Bolivar. It’s longest serving pastor was Rev. Thomas Jackson. The church was a place of solace for the weary soul and support for bringing up children. Storer College students attended church with local residents and served as mentors.

Delores Jackson Foster and her 11 siblings grew up in that church in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, where her father held the office of first deacon. The church and Storer College formed the nucleus of their social life, and both served as informal learning venues. “It was at First Zion that I learned public speaking,” she recalls. “We were given ‘pieces’ to recite on the Easter and Christmas programs.   During Penny Circle, which was a co-ed church activity on first and third Sunday afternoons, we were assigned topics and were expected to speak on them.”

The church struggled financially through much of its life, and as local jobs steadily declined, so did the communities’ Black populations. The church closed in 1991. It was reopened by Rev. Timothy W. Robinson in 2004, but never became a sustainable congregation. The last major event there was an interfaith revival in 2009, held along with St. John Lutheran Church, where Rev. John Unger is pastor.

Even in the 1990s, the building was showing its age. The ceiling leaked and the basement flooded. In 2016 the Harpers Ferry – Bolivar Historic Town Foundation purchased the abandoned church building, with plans to rehabilitate it into a community center that also commemorates the neighborhood’s history.

Through grants and donations, the Foundation took the most important step of replacing the roof and guttering in 2021. Progress has been moving along gradually, but finally this year, the Foundation won a $100,000 grant award from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is funded with support from the Lilly Endowment Inc. The grant will be used to restore the building’s exterior—windows, brick masonry and foundation stones, slate shingles, and wood doors.

The legacy of this congregation and its impact on the local community should never be forgotten.  The progress the Foundation will be able to make over the coming year with this new funding will signal to our communities that this project is real and attainable.

Written by Rachel Meyer