Zion Chapel A. M. E. Church of Natchez

front elevation

Zion Chapel was originally built as the Second Presbyterian Church, and designed by architect J. Edward Smith, whose offices were over Johnson’s barber shop on Main Street (Mississippi Department of Archives & History, Historic Resources Inventory). The Greek Revival style building was constructed in 1858.

Mr. Smith, also designed the new Presbyterian Church, now nearly finished, on Pine Street.  This building, though not nearly so ornate as the other, is still very chaste in its simplicity and harmonious in the style which pervades the whole structure. (The Natchez Bulletin, Oct. 23, 1857, p. 3)

The Zion Chapel A. M. E. Church acquired the property in 1868 and Hiram Revels was the minister.  Revels, the first African American senator following emancipation, was also the first president of Alcorn State University.

front and side elevation-2

“Heaven Bound” was presented four nights during Pilgrimage in 1935.  First produced by Bethel Church of Atlanta in 1930, the play toured other churches in the state in 1931, and later sites outside of the church.  As the exact contents were guarded by Bethel Church, it it was likely a presentation by other than the original developers of the play.

Because Heaven Bound was peculiar to Big Bethel Church, other churches trying to duplicate it failed. (Coleman, G. D. (1992). We’re heaven bound! Portrait of a black sacred drama. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press)

The show was never legally copyrighted followed a difficult and complex legal battle.  Articles in the Natchez Democrat and Clarion-Ledger did not specify who was involved in the cast, although 1935 represented the third year the show had been staged as part of Pilgrimage.  As evidenced by news articles in both 1933 and 1934, local residents were performers.  The WPA program for the arts also produced the play and a three-movie series silent film version was created that appears to have been based on the play.  In November, Big Bethel in Atlanta celebrated the 88th year of the production first staged and performed by their congregation in 1930.

Zion Chapel marker

 

 

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2 Responses to Zion Chapel A. M. E. Church of Natchez

  1. A beautiful old church! I can just imagine people streaming down those steps in their Sunday best. Funny that Heaven Bound was so carefully guarded!

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    • Suzassippi says:

      The idea was developed by a church member of Bethel, and expanded significantly by another member. It resulted in being a significant source of revenue for Bethel during the Great Depression. Although contested, the woman with the idea copyrighted it, resulting in others needing to have permission to stage it. Although eventually it was ruled the church “owned” it, it was never written down as a play so only ‘interpretations’ of it were staged by others. I assume the WPA project may have written something for its productions, but I have not verified it yet. The Federal Archives have a copy of the handbill advertising the play in North Carolina.

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