A Pillar of South Madison: Mt. Zion Baptist Church
by Taylor Kilgore, age 16
Mount Zion Baptist church is a vital institution in south Madison. It has contributed in many important ways to the south side community. Any of us who have grown up in south Madison know Mt. Zion. It seems like the church has always been here. But, that is not the case.
The story of Mt. Zion begins in June of 1911. The church began in that year as a Baptist mission and it was located above a harness shop at 118 East Washington Avenue. In the early days meetings were held at several sites, including the First Baptist Church of Madison located Downtown. In the 1920’s, under the direction of Rev. Zachery Smith who served as pastor, the new church was recognized by the National Baptist Convention. They began to look for a permanent site.
In those early years, focusing on low-income families, the church had moved several times. Mt. Zion finally settled in its first permanent home when it purchased property at 548 West Johnson Street in 1925. Rev. Joseph Washington, Sr. was instrumental as Mt. Zion grew, and he is an important figure in Madison history. Washington served the church for almost 60 years, and was senior pastor from 1927 to 1955. He continued to serve as an assistant minister until his death in 1985. In fact, in1974, Rev. Washington was named the first recipient of Madison’s Revered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award.
In 1955, Rev. Joe E. Dawson was named pastor. He and Washington, and many associated ministers, worked together during the trying times of the 1950s and 60s. This was the Civil Rights Era, and Mt. Zion was becoming a leading institution in the Madison community.
Rev. Dawson was a visionary. Under his leadership Mt. Zion sold property it owned on Williamson Street to pay off the mortgage on the church building at 548 West Johnson. Soon after, the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced its plans to acquire all the properties in the 300, 400, and 500 blocks of Johnson Street. They wanted to construct new student dormitories. Dawson immediately saw the opportunity.
And so began Mt. Zion’s move to south Madison.
Knowing that the city’s Madison Redevelopment Authority was planning to build some low-income housing units on the southside, Dawson began to think ahead and plan for the future. Eventually, the church sold its downtown parcels and settled to its current location on the southside of Madison at 2019 Fisher Street. This move demonstrated the church’s ongoing commitment to disadvantaged neighborhoods. Continuing this mission, Mt. Zion began serving the needs of the greater community by establishing a food pantry in 1982.
In addition to strong community service, today Mt. Zion supplies scholarships to young adults pursuing higher education, demonstrating its dedication to creating opportunities for the surrounding minority community. Mt. Zion also runs a summer school program, which gives kids the opportunity to get prepared for the next school year. In addition, an after-school program throughout the year is offered. These provide tutoring and lessons on study skills to those who need and want the extra help.
Mt. Zion has grown from its small beginnings to a state-of-the-art 500-seat building. Under the current leadership of Reverend Richard L. Jones, Mt. Zion Baptist church is continuing to fulfill the original mission established by its founders. From its onset, the leaders of Mt. Zion were determined to build strong ties with its community. Church members have always made a difference, and they continue to in the lives of local families and youth. Today, Mt. Zion is a pillar institution that helps minorities all over Madison. Its 100-year presence in south Madison has affected the lives of many. Mt. Zion will continue to serve its neighborhood for years to come.