Mt. Zion United Methodist Church & Rosenwald School

Mt. Zion Rosenwald School, image by Jerrye & Roy Klotz, M.D., Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

Location: 5040 Liberty Chapel Road, Florence, South Carolina 29506, United States

Most of the information we have for both of these sites came from the efforts of Mabel R. Dickey, researcher, writer, and member of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church.

The first site you will see at this location is Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. Plans for this Black Church began during the American Civil War in January 1863, just after the Emancipation Proclamation freed those enslaved in the South. Several local Black leaders, including Reconstruction South Carolina State Representative Anthony Howard, officially founded it in 1868, with Reverend James Wesley Johnson as its first minister. The church was originally called the Mt. Zion Methodist Episcopal Church.

Before the church had a permanent structure, church services were held in a brush arbor. The shelter was constructed on vertical poles that had additional poles laying across the top of the shelter with branches and hay as the roof. However, the permanent structure was built in 1875. The church once had a steeple and a bell.  Robert “Bob” Thomas was one of the first bell ringers for the church. The original church was warmed with a wood or coal-burning stove in the center.

In 1970, the church was remodeled and covered in brick veneer. This remodeling included the addition of the John A. Sellers Fellowship Hall.  The hall included a pastor’s study, a kitchen, and a Sunday School room. One of the trustees was Archie Waiters, who is buried in the Mt. Zion Cemetery and discussed on this tour. Members of the Waiters family have often served as trustees of the church and lived in the Hewn-Timber Cabins located on Francis Marion University’s campus. 

The church changed its name to Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in 1972 when the Black and white conferences merged to become the South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. The church’s next remodel took place in 1991, under Reverend John T. Hemingway’s administration. The church installed stained glass windows, new tiles for the fellowship hall, new carpet, and cushioned seats for the pews. 

Palma D. Thomas is the current reverend of the church, which is still an active place of worship today.

Across the street from the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church resides the Mt. Zion Rosenwald School.

Here, members of the then Mt. Zion Methodist Episcopal Church built the Mt. Zion School in 1870 as a school for Black children, since this was the first time that formerly enslaved people had legal access to education.  Segregation meant they could not attend schools with white children in Mars Bluff, the region east of the city of Florence. The trustees of the church purchased one and three-quarter acres of land from Dr. Robert Benjamin Fladger for $35 to build a school for any child, regardless of color. 

The school featured grades first through sixth, and one or two teachers led combined classes during four to five-month periods, based around times that  help would be needed for farming. Unfortunately, the original school burned down in the 1920s but Julius Rosenwald then funded it to be rebuilt. 

At the time, Rosenwald was the President of Sears, allowing him the funds to work towards rebuilding the school. Over 5 million dollars were spent on construction, school bus transportation, daycare programs, and donations for Black schools throughout the country. Florence’s Mount Zion School is one of the few Rosenwald schools still standing and not occupied for other purposes. Rosenwald was also responsible for the design of the buildings.

The Rosenwald Fund granted the school roughly $2,000. Afterward, though, Black and white members of the community were encouraged to work together in pooling funds and building the school, including bake sales, fish fries, and other events so they would no longer need the support from the Rosenwald Fund.

When the school was finished with construction, over 5 thousand students attended Rosenwald Schools. The Mt. Zion Rosenwald School in particular was the first public school created for African American students in the Mars Bluff community and remained in operation until 1952. While the school is not still in use today, it remains largely unchanged thanks to the preservation efforts of the Mt. Zion Methodist Church. There are even plans in the works to restore the school as a museum, ensuring such preservation efforts are maintained.  

The school has three rooms. The first one is located upon entering the building. This room served as the principal’s office and a small portion of it was also a classroom for fifth graders. They placed a curtain to divide the rooms. 

The second room also featured a separate outside door, but the stoop outside is gone now. On the wall between the 2nd and 3rd rooms was a blackboard used in room 2, but the wall was eventually removed to create a larger space that allowed for special events to take place for the community and school programs. 

The final room was at the northern end of the building, and it was approximately the same size as the second room. This room was used to teach first and second-grade students. 

Some records of students who attended the school are still in existence today. Annie Lee Robinson, who also lived in the Hewn-Timber Cabins now on Francis Marion University’s campus, was a student from 1947 until the school closed in 1952. Robinson started attending the Rosenwald school when she was roughly six years old. In an interview, she detailed how the students brought lunches from home and ate outside when the weather permitted. She also talked about how the students helped to gather firewood to help heat the school. The building typically ran on coal, but when it ran out, mainly the boys were sent to chop wood.

Flora James was another student who attended the school from 1946 to 1951. In a recent interview, James recalled that she and Robinson walked over a mile to and from school each day. She also talked about how they received second-hand books from nearby white schools. She has been a long-time member of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church and worked at Francis Marion University in her adulthood. 

The history of the Mt. Zion Church and the Rosenwald School is still recent enough that people today have memories of attending the school and upkeeping the church. 

For more information on this historic site download the Florence Navigator App from the Apple App store or the Google play store.

To learn more about these two sites together tethering Florence’s past with its present you can