Community Raises $100,000 to Save Former Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church in downtown Great Barrington
Great Barrington, Mass., March 30, 2017 — Clinton Church Restoration, LLC, has surpassed its initial goal of raising $100,000 to purchase, restore and repurpose the historic Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church at 9 Elm Court in Great Barrington. The announcement comes just one day before the organization’s March 31 deadline.
“We made it. We have reached the first step on the ladder,” said Wray Gunn, longtime member of the Clinton Church and chair of Clinton Church Restoration (CCR). “Thanks to an outpouring of generosity from our friends and neighbors, we have raised enough to purchase and secure the building. Anything that comes in beyond this goal will go toward its restoration.”
Gunn noted that CCR’s fundraising effort received an important boost in February, when Housatonic Heritage, a project of the National Park Service and CCR’s fiscal sponsor, put forth a $10,000 challenge grant, matching donations 1:1 for a period of six weeks. He said his organization is grateful to everyone who supported this initial campaign, which reached the halfway mark in mid-January.
“This reflection of over 400 donors is inspiring,” said Maia Conty, advisory board member and cofounder of The Generosity Economy, a local group focused on meeting community needs through gifting and relationship. “Everyone has a different gift to bring, whether it’s writing a check, helping to put a tarp over the roof, or donating time and materials. People are grateful for the opportunity to give to a project that is doing good in the world.”
CCR’s goal is to create a vital and self-sustaining entity for community use that celebrates and honors the 130-year history of the former Clinton Church. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a site on the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail, the church was the spiritual, political and cultural hub for local African Americans. It was also a place of significance to W.E.B. Du Bois, Great Barrington’s most famous native son.
Gunn and his wife Cora Portnoff, who was also a member of the congregation, are part of a group that has been working to rescue the historic building since last fall. The initial call to save the deconsecrated church, which has been out of use for several years and is in severe disrepair, came from former parishioners and community members in October. Great Barrington Selectboard member Ed Abrahams and local activist Beth Carlson joined forces and began rallying community support. The all-volunteer effort quickly coalesced and within a few weeks had become a Massachusetts nonprofit. Joining Gunn, Portnoff and Carlson on the board of directors is Dan Bolognani, executive director of Housatonic Heritage, Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire County Chapter of the NAACP, and Diego Gutierrez, owner of Housatonic Architecture. The organization has a group of 10 advisory board members and intends to add more.
CCR’s initiative is part of a growing movement around the country to preserve and honor African American historic places. The group has been working with Veronica Jackson, an interpretative master planner and architecture-trained museum exhibit designer with expertise in projects that honor African American history, including the W.E.B. Du Bois homesite in Great Barrington, and the African Voices exhibit for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. In early March, Jackson facilitated a public meeting and two design charrettes for the group in order to garner public input and create a “visioning document” for the project. The group’s next steps are to turn that vision into a concrete plan for programming that will guide the restoration, and to recruit a diverse group of volunteers to share their expertise in fundraising, PR, historic preservation and project management.