Woodstock church to unveil historical marker

Norman Pye, a trustee of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Woodstock, sits in a pew inside the church sanctuary. A Virginia Department of Historic Resources highway marker about the church will be unveiled Thursday. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – Mt. Zion United Methodist Church has stood on the corner of North Church and East Locust streets for 149 years, a history that will be honored Thursday with the unveiling of a Virginia Department of Historic Resources highway marker.

After the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, a group of newly freed African-Americans in May 1868 purchased the land for $146.

“They had it hard back in the day,” said Norman Pye, a Mt. Zion United Methodist Church trustee.

But there was some support in the town, he said, citing the example of a white congregation, St. Paul Reformed Church, that tore down its church and in doing so helped in the building of what was then called Mt. Zion Methodist Church.

Mt. Zion church members and their pastor, the Rev. Washington Carter, bought the lumber from St. Paul Reformed, moved it about four blocks, built their new church and opened its doors a year later in 1869, Pye said.

Norman Pye holds an undated photo of the original Mount Zion Methodist Church that was built in 1869. The photo includes an image of William H. Polk who directed construction of the new church in 1920. Rich Cooley/Daily

In a segregated society, that one building was what was available to African-Americans. It became the center for life in the African-American neighborhood, Pye said.

It was their church. It was where they cried tears of sorrow at funerals, and tears of joy at weddings. They held meetings and community functions there.

The church in 1881 built a one-room schoolhouse behind the church, knowing it would be the only way African-American children would be able to obtain an education. It was where, during segregation, leaders in the African-American community emerged, such as the Rev. William Henry Polk.

In 1920, the old church was torn down.

Polk oversaw the construction of a new church, which opened its doors in 1921. He worked to grow the church and its importance to the town. It still stands in that corner, quietly absorbing the life events that come and go through its doors.

“There is a lot of history in this church,” Pye said.

The church has seen times where it was filled, and the social hall had to be opened to allow for space. Today, there are 10 members in the congregation. Pye said they would like to see the church filled again.

“We are holding on,” he said.

Commemorating its history and importance, the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church applied for and received the highway marker from the Department of Historic Resources.

The marker text is:

“In 1869, members of Woodstock’s African-American community built a frame church on this site. The congregation flourished and eventually adopted the name Mt. Zion Methodist. It is one of the oldest historically black churches in Shenandoah County. In a town segregated along racial lines, the church was the center of a thriving African-American neighborhood and sanctuary for its residents. Numerous educational events, political meetings, and community gatherings were held inside. Woodstock’s first African-American public school was constructed at the rear of this lot in 1880. The current church building was erected in 1921 under the leadership of Rev. W.H. Polk.”

Zach Hottel, Shenandoah County Library archivist, researched and helped document the history of the church for the application to the Department of Historic Resources.

Woodstock officials wrote a letter of support to the agency for the marker, and the town agreed to install the marker and maintain it.

“We believe that this is an important part of the town’s history that is being highlighted and want to assist in bringing awareness of this history to citizens and visitors,” said Town Manager Angela Clem.

The public unveiling of the highway marker is scheduled for 4 p.m. Thursday in front of the church.  The church is responsible for the approximate $2,000 cost of the marker.

More Information

• Donations for the marker: Send to Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, 158 N. Church St., Woodstock VA, 22664.

• Marker unveiling: 4 p.m. Thursday in front of the church, 158 N. Church St. Woodstock.