Through it all, Mt. Moriah Church sits as a beacon of Christian light, calling all those who are willing to its outstretched arms.
The historic church has weathered many a storm. Its members have kept the spirit flowing within its walls through the ebb and flow of changing times.
Today, the church is listed among those on the National Historic Registry. The next step is to acquire a state marker – a joint effort currently under way by its members and certain Middlesboro officials.
“Mt. Moriah Baptist Church is a historically significant location in Middlesboro and Bell County,” said William Tribell, executive director of the Bell County Historical Society and Museum.
“I have been involved since I was appointed director at the museum, in assisting the congregation in saving their church. Our goal is to get a state historical marker placed at the location and being on the National Register of Historic Places is a great start.
“There is precious little tangible history concerning our African-American community and here is Mt. Moriah, alive and well. The church must be preserved, and I am proud to be a part of these conservation efforts.”
Formally organized in 1891, Mt. Moriah held its services on 14th Street before moving, in 1920, to its permanent location on 19th Street. Its members managed to raise $375 in 1906 to buy three parcels of land in what was then known as the African-American business district.
1940s Middlesboro was not immune to the sign of the times. Surrounded nightly by all manner of debauchery as gamblers and drunken merrymakers kicked up a ruckus, Mt. Moriah held tight to its standard.
Many of those who partied hard during nighttime escapades found themselves seated on the church pews on Sunday, donating into the church coffers much of their gambling winnings earned the night before.
Despite the community’s nickname at the time, Mt. Moriah was respected by those enjoying the fruits of ‘Little Chicago,’ with its corresponding businesses regularly donating to the church.
Mt. Moriah was added sometime during the 1980s to the National Register of Historic Places. For some reason, the designating sticker never made it to the doors of the church.
Kitty Dougoud, who is the statewide coordinator for the Kentucky Main Street Program under the Kentucky Heritage Council, says she was contacted.
“Our office had not distributed stickers for several years. However, I found a couple in the office and, when I could make the trip, I stopped by the church to deliver it,” said Dougoud.
Several steps are required in the acquisition of a state marker.
“You must be nominated for the designation. In the application, you must explain why your structure is significant to the public in a wider fashion,” said Dougoud.
In order for Mt. Moriah to be considered, its application must include at least one of three important criteria. First, the church must have been in existence, uninterrupted, for more than 150 years.
Second, there must be documented proof that Mt. Moriah is connected to a significant historical event or person who was meaningful to Kentucky history, as a whole.
The church qualifies under the third requirement – that of inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.
If approved, those working on composing the text of the marker will need to restrict the verbiage to include only the historical significance of the building, rather than its architectural features.
The marker text would not be approved unless the context of the language can be verified by historical documentation.
Once approved, the church will need to raise about $2,500 to cover the cost of the marker.
According to Dougoud, it takes about six to eight weeks to cast the marker, which would then be installed via the state.
The Kentucky Historic Preservation Office can assist those coordinating the official marker ceremony.
Since 1949, more than 2,400 markers have been designated via the Kentucky Historical Marker Program. There are two deadlines yearly, falling on March 1 and Sept. 1.
For more information, log onto: history.ky.gov or call Tribell at 606-242-0005.
Mt. Moriah Church welcomes all to its weekly services, beginning at 11 a.m. on Sunday.
Reach Jan Runions at 423-254-5588 or on Twitter @scribeCP.