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Historic Black Church Celebrates 200th Anniversary

The Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Georgetown was packed Sunday with people and songs of praise as generations celebrated the 200th anniversary of the oldest African-American congregation in the District of Columbia.

Mt. Zion was founded in 1816 by a group of slaves and freedmen who broke away from what was the Montgomery Street Church United Methodist Church because its leaders required them to worship from the balcony.

In 2015, the leaders of what is now the Dumbarton United Methodist Church apologized that blacks had to leave because of segregation, and on Sunday, blacks and whites from both congregations worshiped as one.

“We have come here for a true celebration,” said Mt. Zion’s pastor, the Rev. Johnsie W. Cogman, who started the Sunday afternoon celebration by dancing down the aisle behind the Mt. Zion Mass choir. “When God has blessed you for 200 years, there should be some real praise in the house.”

The celebration, titled “Still Standing, Still Sowing and Still Serving,” included a weekend of activities that was more than two years of planning, said Pamela Carter-Coleman, anniversary chairperson.

On Sept. 30, motivational speaker Willie Jolley was the master of ceremonies for a gala at the Washington Marriott Georgetown. On Sunday afternoon, WJLA reporter Sam Ford served as the emcee for the anniversary celebration.

The original church members built a sanctuary initially known as The Meeting House, then The Little Ark. The church’s name was changed to Mt. Zion Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844.

While the blacks formed Mt. Zion, in 1849, some left the church and formed three African Methodist Episcopal churches because Methodist church leaders refused to allow black ministers to lead the congregation.While Zion’s first black minister was Rev. John H. Brice in 1864, Cogman is the church’s first African-American female pastor.

In 1879, Mt. Zion members purchased their own burial grounds, but years earlier, church buildings used to store burial vaults were deployed to hide slaves as part of the Underground Railroad.

Despite modern-day parking challenges brought on by gentrification, the church members, many of them descendants of the original families, have no plans to leave their spiritual home in Georgetown and the church continues to attract new generations of members. About 168 people attended the event Sunday.

“My family has been in this church since the early 1900s,” said longtime church member Alice Walker. “My family owned three houses and a store near Wisconsin and O streets. We have every right to remain in Georgetown.”

Sharon Simpson Goings, another descendent of the church’s early members, said she doesn’t mind fighting for parking to attend services at Mt. Zion.

“My grandmother and my great-grandmother are buried in the old slave cemetery,” she said. “Emma Harris Simpson and Beatrice Harris.”

During the program, Tom Burch, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner from Georgetown, said that church is a “vibrant and significant,” part of the neighborhood’s history and “there is no Georgetown history without African-American history.”

Rev. Mary Kay Totty, the current pastor of Dunbarten UMC, said that she was glad to be invited to be part of the program.

“What it means for me is that this is a sign of hope,” she said.

While much of the program focused on the past, Cogman thanked dozens of young adult musicians from Howard University who anchor the musical chores and the many young people in the choir.

Seated near the musicians were fashion designer and model Mertine Moore Brown, her husband Roach Brown, her sister and many of their grandchildren.

“My mother played the piano in this church and she was married here,” Brown said.

Catherine Bowman, 91, was one of the last people to leave the church Sunday afternoon. Her brother, Carter Bowman, was the chairman of the Trustee Board.

As she thanked people from coming, Bowman said she had no plans to leave.

“I am the only church member still living in Georgetown,” she said. “This is home.”

Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the Greater Washington Area. Hamil has chronicled the Million Man March, the Clinton White House, the September 11 attack, the sniper attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the campaign of President Barack Obama and many other people and events. Hamil is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of the Washington Post where he writes a range of stories, shoots photos and produces videos for the print and online editions of the Post. In addition, he is often called upon to report on crime, natural disasters and other breaking issues. In 2006 Harris was part of a team of reporters that published the series “Being a Black Man.” He was also the reporter on the video project that accompanied the series that won two Emmy Awards, the Casey Medal and the Peabody Award. Hamil has lectured at Georgetown University, George Washington University, Howard University, the American University, the University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia. He also lectures several times a year to interns during their semester in the District as part of their matriculation at the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities.

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