Compiled and edited by Mrs. Harriett Simpson, and Mrs. Alexis Alexander
Rev. Sterrett – This church was born, not only as a child of necessity, but also of a child of tribulation. The necessity was caused by the mother church (Emanuel) being over-crowded. She had forty two hundred (4200) members and eight hundred (800) probationers, making a total of five thousand(5000). Emanuel’s old building had become very much dilapidated and there were a portion of the members who favored the old building, and another portion who favored building a new church on another spot. But those who had been the founders of Emanuel church would not adhere to leaving that sacred spot.
After calling many meetings, and finding it was impossible to harmonize the two faction, I offered the proposition that all unite and remodel the present structure, and then all unite and purchase another lot and build another church. This proposition was unanimously adopted, and so well please were they with the remodeling of the church that the faction who desire to stay very readily united with the others in purchasing a lot to build. Providence seemed to favor us, for it was not long before two lot were advertised for sale on the South East comer of Rutledge Avenue and Montague Street. Seeing that these two lots would give us ample room for our church building, we secured a real estate in for us incognito. The day of the sale came, and the lots were knocked to our agent for $2,100.00, $700.00 to be placed immediately in the bank as good faith money. Not one dollar did we have. We succeeded in borrowing the amount, and the money was in the bank on time. We then appointed a building committee consisting of William D. Wilkinson, Joseph F. Russell, George Simpson, and John Alston. As soon as it was publicly known that the A.M.E. had bought the above lot, they became an eyesore to the aristocratic residence of that vacinity. About this time the congregation of Zion Presbyterian Church on Glebe Street, and the congregation of Westminster Presbyterian Church on Meeting Street had become so small that they agreed to amalgamate and sell one of the above churches. But it became a great question as to which church to be sold. The Zion congregation wanted to hold their building, and the Westminster congregation likewise wanted to hold theirs. They finally agreed to put a private price on each church, and then put them both up at auction, with the understanding that the church which got the nearest offer to it’s private price should be sold.
Hence both churches were advertise to be sold at public auction on a certain day on about the 5th of June 1882. Of course no attention was paid to this advertisement by us, we did not give it a passing notice, for we knew it was not intended for our observation. Our hands and hearts were full of building a new church. On Wednesday night the 24th day of May, while seated in my study on Mary Street, a messenger came to me from a Mr. “M,” whose-address was in the vacinity of Rutledge Avenue and Montague Street. This messenger said that Mr. “M,” requested that I come to his house on the following evening at 8:30 p.m., and that I must not tell anyone that I was coming nor bring anyone with me. If I came in my buggy I was to leave it a square from the house. After questioning the messenger, I told him “alright, I would be there.”
But knowing as I did the feeling that existed in the vicinity of Rutledge and Montague Street, in regard to a Negro church being built there, and knowing that I was the prime mover in the work, and that a Negro’s life was worth so little in the city of Charleston at that time and after receiving such a peculiar message I must confess to you I did not feel
to be laboring under these most comfortable circumstances. Having a whole night and day to meditate upon it, without anyone to consult with or tell where they might come and look for me should I not return, it seemed almost unbearable. However the fatal hour came, I habilitated with some of the paraphernalia of a soldier (take out the gun) and went forward. I fasted my horse at the designated. distance, walked to the door of a great mansion, and as I had been instructed, not to ring the bell but to rap. I gave a slight rap, and almost immediately the door was opened by the gentleman himself who ordered me in. After which, the door was shut and locked., I would have preferred standing, but the gentleman bade me to be seated. The first words he spoke sent a chill through me.
White man – “You have bought a lot over here to build a church on, have you?” “Do you intend to build there?”
Rev. Sterrett – ‘O yes, “we are making every preparation.
White man – ”Would you not purchase a church already built?”
Rev. Sterrett – (These words gave back my aquanimity which I had been without for twenty four hours.) If we had known of any church we could have bought before we took those lots on our hand we might have bought it if it suited us.
White man – I want your sacred promise that you would not divulge my name and what I am going to tell you.
Rev. Sterrett– I promise.
(And though he is long since dead I do not feel at liberty to make his name known.)
White man – There are two churches to be sold and private prices have been placed on both. I am a member of the Westminster church and do not want it sold. If you all would put in a bid of $15,000.00, agreeing to pay $6,000.00 cash and $ 1,000. 00 in annual installments, you would get the church.
Rev. Sterrett – (I saw he was anxious to save his (Westminster) church, and I saw also that I had him; consequently I did not really lay hold of his proposition.) We have no money, and had paid $700.00 on the lot, and unless we could dispose of these lots at a considerable increase we would be in no condition to consider your proposition.)
White man – We will take the lot, pay you back the $700.00 with a bonus of $500.00 which amount I could easily raise from the people of this neighborhood to get rid of you.
Rev. Sterrett – That sound favorable.
White man – “Now, “if the Zion church members get the inkling that colored people are going to buy their church you will never get. “You must get some white man whom you can trust, to act as agent for you.
Rev. Sterrett – I have just the man.
White man – you must not go about the church, for it might raise suspicion.
Rev. Sterrett – Alright. (but it was not alright that time with me, for I could not bear the idea of buying a building without seeing inside of it.
The next day I saw Mr. J. L. Moses, who was a real estate agent on Broad Street, and with whom I had contracted much business. After giving him all the plans and he charging me not to be seen on Broad Street the day of the sale, I then set about studying a plan to see inside of Glebe Street Church; for I was determine to see the inside. I found out that Dr. Judkin held one service at five in the afternoon, this played in my hand, and I concluded to worship with him the following Sabbath.
Sabbath came, and at the appointed hour I took my seat near the door. Little did anyone think I was an ecclesiastical spy in the church. After services, several of the business men, with whom I had transacted business, expressed a pleasure of seeing me there. In a jocular manner I told them I had heard so much about their pastor thatI came to learn how to preach. This had the very effect I wanted it to have, and they took me to the altar and introduced me to their pastor, telling him what I said. After complimenting him on his sermon (which I suppose must have been a very fine one, but to tell the truth my ears were going with my eyes the whole time he was preaching; and my eyes were taking in the church), I remarked to the pastor what a beautiful edifice it was. He then told me to come and see the lecture room – again just what I wanted. He informed me that the lecture room and vestry were built sometime after the church was built, and that it cost $9,000.00. I was not so particular about that information, and yet it did me good.
I felt a thrill of joy pass through me, for I concluded that if the lecture room cost $9,000.00 then the main building must be worth at least $6,000.00, and that I was getting a bargain at $15,000.00 for both.
I knew if there was the slightest defect, mistakes, or room for just complaints, I would have to bear the abuse, and curses from both laity and clergy during my life, and perhaps they could be heaped upon my grave after I was dead. If I could have called around me those five true, trusty, and faithful men who had been elected as a building committee and consulted with them my burden would not have been so heavy. But no, I dare not do this, not that I was afraid to trust them, not that I was afraid that they would not be in harmony with me, but I was afraid that they might unintentionally, yes, unconsciously, by word, or act, say or do something that would betray us.
The eventful day came, the two churches were put up at auction. No bid was offered for the Westminster church. Fifteen thousand was offered for the Zion Presbyterian Church, and it was knocked down to J. L. Moses, Agent, $6,000.00 to be paid within four months. $1,500.00 of that amount was to be placed in the bank before twelve o’clock the next day as a guarantee that the other $4,500.00 would be forth coming at the expiration of the four months, at which time we were to take possession; but a failure to pay the $4,500.00 within the given time would cause us to lose the $1,500.00 in the bank, and the bargain cancelled.
Not a dollar in hand, and I could not say a word to the Building Committee yet, for the contract was not completed until the $ 1,500.00 was in the bank, and it had to be there by the next day at 12 o’clock. You talk about Czars, but that was one time I was compelled to be an ecclesiastic Czar. I got the $700.00 from the lot, and the $500.00 bonus and borrowed $300.00, and had it in the bank before high twelve the next day. I do not tell you that I slept much in those days.
The most amusing thing to me in the whole matter was, on e of the Building Committee coming to me the night after the sale and telling me that the Germans had bought the Glebe Street Church. I asked him what they paid for it, and he said he did not know, but they must have paid a very big price for that church.
I called my Building Committee together the next day after I had paid the money and told them what I had done. The delight and appreciation with which they received the news more than recompensed me for all I had undergone.
We went down and signed the papers, and then I charged the committee that it would have to be kept a secret, for there was one great obstacle we yet had to overcome before it could be made public. The law of our church requires, the members to order the Trustees to purchase property. But in this case I had sold the lots, bought the church, and paid the first installment, without orders from the trustees or members. And I knew there were many discontents in the church, such as Abraham Adams, Albert Hunt, John Cotten, John Leach, and many others who would work it against me for all it was worth. Hence after arranging with my committee I called a church meeting, and drew up resolutions and put it in the hands of Joseph Russell, telling him to sit midway of the church, and offer them when I scratch my head, the church was crowded, for members came to church in those days when you called them. After telling them how long it would take us to build a church, and how much better it would be if we could buy one already built, and that there were two advertised for sale, and if they could order us we would try to buy one. Albert Hunt rose up and said,
Albert Hunt – “Mr. Chairman, I know what churches you are talking about. You could not buy one of them if you were to fill it with gold.’
Rev. Sterrett – “Well, Bro. Hunt, it won’t do any harm to try. ( give the signal.)
Mr. Russell – “Whereas, we have heard from the Pastor that there are two churches advertised for sale. “Resolved, that the Pastor and the Building Committee be authorized to purchase one, not paying over $16,000.00, $6,000.00 cash, and $1000.00 in annual installment.”
Bro. Hunt – You are just throwing away time.
Wm. Wilkerson “We have got that much time to throw away.’
Rev. Sterrett– Those in favor of adopting the resolutions say “I.”
On Sunday following, I notified the congregation that we had bought the church for $15,000.00,
and that the doors would be open Monday from 12:00 to 1:00 O’clock for inspection.
Monday thepeople came from every denomination, until the church was crowded. This was the first brick church in Charleston owned by colored people, and I speak advisedly.
We then organized four regiments of “Willing Workers” (tell all of the Willing Workers to stand, Mt. Zion and Emanuel, ask them to sit.) and belted the city, having them report once a month. How we got the money and where it came from God only knows, but we paid the amount when due, for the people had a mind to work.
Now comes the tribulations of which I spoke of in the first page. This lot upon which the church stands was originally Glebe land, and presumably bequeathed to St. Michael and St. Phillips Episcopal Churches. In the division of the land between St. Michael and St. Phillips Churches, this lot was assigned to St. Phillips Church in 1797. On the 1st day of may, 1847, St. Phillips leased this lot to Caldwell and others for 90 years, with a right of perpetual renewal.
Caldwell and others, sometime in 1847, assigned this lease to the Glebe Street Presbyterian Church, and the Glebe Street Congregation built this church on the lot some time in 1847. May 16, 1856, St. Phillips Church conveyed this lot in fee simple to the Glebe Street Presbyterian Church.
On the 10th day of May 1866, the Glebe Street Church sold this lot and church to the Zion Presbyterian Church of Charleston. These two churches, viz., Glebe Street Presbyterian and the Zion Presbyterian Church of Charleston, amalgamated.
Shortly after it was made public that the Glebe Street Church had been bought by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Mr. Miles, representing the St. Phillips Church, objected to the sale, and on the 21st day of August, 1882, Mr. Miles sent us a copy of the following resolutions of St.Phillips Church: ‘Resolved, that the Vestry and Church Wardens of St. Phillips Church object to the sale of the Presbyterian Church on Glebe Street, and that the solicitor be instructed to take immediate steps from preventing such sale.”
We were not by any means surprise, for we had gotten and inkling that we were buying a law suit and used the precautions to bind the Zion Presbyterian corporation to protect us against all lawsuits; and if we lost the church they were to pay us all moneys paid out, and $3,000.00 damages. So we felt perfectly at ease, knowing that if we lost we would be $3,000.00 better than when we commence.
Buist and Buist, Rutledge and Young, and Judge Magrah were employed by The Zion Presbyterian Church, and Miles and McCray were employed by St. Phillips.
But, O my! the Tobiahs and Sanballats, both among the discontented members and the jealous ministers, they started war on us; told people that we has squandered their money and that they would never get a good title, etc., etc.
On October the 16th, I met Mr. Enslow and another officer of the church here, and they handed me the keys, and formally turned the church over. The church was to be dedicated the following Sunday, but they insisted that I should come in before. At that time I did not know the reason, and called a meeting for Thursday night, October 19th, and had a crowded house. I preached from the text, “We have come to Zion.” I was the first colored man that ever preached in that church. The congregation gave me the privilege of naming the church, and as it was called Zion, I put “Mount” to it. This seemed to please all hands. On Saturday, St. Phillips got out an injunction to keep us from entering, but too late; we were in.
If we had not gotten in the church Thursday night we would have been barred from the church for two years, during the litigation.
The church gained the suit in both the lower and Supreme Courts, which makes the title of this church the best title in the city of Charleston.
On the following Sunday, October 22, 1882, the church was dedicated by Bishop J. M. Brown and William F. Dickerson. The main audience room and lecture room were crowded to overflowing.
Among the visitors were Judge Magrah, Mayor Courtney, and many other distinguished white citizens. Joseph F. Russell, in a very unique speech, delivered the keys. the public offering for that day was $720.00.
I served both churches as pastor until conference. At conference there was a demand for my return, but the law of the A. M. E. Church was such at that time that it did not allow a minister to stay in a city longer than five years. To obviate this difficulty the conference attached a church called Shiloh from St. Peters Circuit, to Zion, and called it Shiloh Circuit, and of course I was on a circuit, and not in the city, there was nothing to prevent my serving this church another year. During the year I paid $1,000.00 on the mortgage, paid all the interest up to date, and took to conference $253.80, from 470 members, which was an average of $.50 to the member, and that was the highest average any appointment in the conference made, and it is the highest average this church has ever made since.,
I went away from here. leaving a debt of $8,000.00 on the church. How long, and how many ministers it took to pay that debt, it is for you to say. Thus I have endeavored to give you a sketch ofthe history of Mt. Zion church.
Peace be within thy wall, and prosperity within thy palaces. If I forget thee, O Mt. Zion, let my right hand forget her cunning; if I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Zion above my chief joy.