Historic Detroit

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New Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church

This building opened in 1928 and served as the home of the Beth David Synagogue (later known as B'Nai David Synagogue) until 1958. However, since 1960, it has been known as the New Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church.

It is significant as one of Detroit's most outstanding examples of synagogue architecture and as the former home of one of the city's largest Jewish congregations, but also for exemplifying the demographic trends that turned Detroit into one of the largest African-American communities in the country.

Beth David An Orthodox congregation, the Beth David congregation was founded in 1892 and first met in a rented facility on the northwest corner of Gratiot Avenue and Hastings Street. It was established by a group of 14 recent immigrants from Russia. The first permanent home (no longer standing) -- located at 293 Adelaide St. between Hastings and Rivard streets -- was dedicated on Sept. 9, 1900, and was constructed at a cost of $5,000.

The congregation was founded by Rabbi Saul Rabinowitz. Early rabbis also included Jacob H. Scheinman and Ezekiel Aishishkin, a Lithuanian immigrant. Although most Jewish Detroit residents in the 19th century had immigrated from Germany and Russia in the 1910s and 1920s, Detroit's Jewish population in the city increased significantly as Jews from New York and other areas of the East Coast were attracted by Detroit's growing automobile industry. During this period, many new synagogues were founded, but many existing ones were expanded. In 1915, as membership in Beth David grew, the congregation moved to the former Shaarey Zedek location at 545 Winder St., between Beaubien and Hastings streets in an area that later became known to the African-American community of Paradise Valley. The following year, membership included a total of 178 families. From 1925 to 1928, the congregation met in a location at Owen Street in the city's North End neighborhood.

Like many immigrant communities, Detroit's Jewish population expanded outward from the city center as subsequent generations accumulated wealth and sought new homes in more spacious conditions. Jews, in particular, tended to move north and west. In 1910, the Jewish population was located almost exclusively in an area bounded by Woodward, Gratiot, Russell, and Brady streets. By 1920, the community had expanded as far north as Grand Boulevard. Temple Beth-El, the city's largest, was built on Woodward in this area in 1903 and moved north to Woodward and Gladstone in 1922 to follow this migration.

Within the next decade, much of the city's Jewish population established itself in the vicinity of 12th Street (now Rosa Parks Boulevard) north of Grand Boulevard. Beth David, with the construction of a new building at 2201 Elmhurst Ave., became the first major synagogue to represent this new population center.

The congregation was granted Building Permit No. 29982 for this structure on May 28, 1927, and broke ground on the structure that year. Its estimated cost was $111,700. The Beth David Synagogue moved into its new home on Aug. 26, 1928, during the High Holy Days. The move was commemorated by walking the congregation's Torah from the prior location to the new one, in a ceremony in which some 1,000 worshippers participated. The magnificent 1,600-seat house of worship is illustrative of the size and prosperity of the community in the 1920s.

A second large synagogue, Shaarey Zedek, also moved to this area, locating on West Chicago Boulevard in 1932. Shaarey Zedek was a Conservative institution, while Beth David was Orthodox, so the two served different populations.

In 1933, Aishishkin retired and Rabbi Joshua Sperka began to serve the Beth David congregation. Around this time, Beth David reorganized itself as it faced financial challenges, creating a new entity by the name of B'Nai David. Beginning in 1934, B'Nai David distinguished itself from many other Orthodox congregations by instituting mixed seating for men and women, a break from Orthodox tradition.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, many of the area's Jewish residents began to move to northwest Detroit or to suburban Oakland County. The homes of departing Jewish residents were typically filled by African-American residents. Thomas J. Sugrue, in "The Origins of the Urban Crisis," argued that Jews in Detroit, on the whole, were not as likely as other white groups to enforce racial segregation. Jewish religious leaders and organizations such as the Jewish Community Council of Detroit advocated a position of tolerance, arguing that “prejudice exercised against any one group is harmful to entire groups and to the entire community.” Jews were also less committed to particular neighborhoods due to a low rate of homeownership (only 11 percent in the neighborhood surrounding B'Nai David) and because synagogue membership did not adhere to geographical boundaries. Therefore, Sugrue argues, Jews were both more likely to relocate when a favorable opportunity presented itself elsewhere, and less likely to oppose an influx of African-American residents, unlike many other Detroit neighborhoods.

On the other hand, some writers, such as the authors of the 2001 Detroit News series “Broken Detroit,” emphasize the “blockbusting” strategies employed by real estate agents. Seeking to profit from commissions, the financing of home sales, and even by speculating on properties themselves, Realtors and bankers employed a variety of strategies to fuel racial fears and encourage the rapid sale of houses. Whatever the reason, residential turnover in the area served by B'Nai David was rapid, as observed by the Detroit News, with 149 out of 159 residents leaving an adjacent block of Elmhurst between 1953 and 1958. B'Nai David purchased a site on Southfield Road in Southfield Township in 1954, and broke ground on a new building the following year.

The congregation moved out of the city in 1958, seeking a buyer for its now-vacant building. B'Nai David moved from its Southfield site in 1994 and is now located in West Bloomfield near Maple and Orchard Lake roads.

New Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church

New Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church was founded on Dec. 31, 1919, with the Rev. Major Baldwin as its first pastor. The African-American congregation originally met in a storefront at Leland and Orleans streets, and soon moved to a location at Leland and Riopelle streets. The Rev. F. H. Howard reorganized the church in 1923 and began a campaign to raise funds and expand the building. The work was completed in 1925. The Rev. James S. Williams Sr. was called to serve as pastor in 1926. Williams came from Omaha, Neb., and is remembered as being an outspoken minister, a “firebrand” who “didn't mince words” and helped the church to attract new members. Soon, a larger building was necessary. Williams recommended the purchase of a church building, the former Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church at Mack and Chene avenues. It cost $68,000 and the congregation, with approximately 2,000 members, moved in May 13, 1928. At that time, the area was home to a large number of Italian immigrants in addition to its growing African-American population.

A few weeks later, on May 29, 1928, the church was severely damaged by a bomb that had been planted inside the building. Fortunately, no one was injured, as the explosion occurred around 3 a.m., when the church was empty. Williams; his wife, Sarah; and his children, Thelma and James, were asleep in the adjoining parsonage at the time. The blast completely destroyed the church's organ, pews, windows, and entrance vestibule, and damaged the walls and roof. It was powerful enough to break windows on nearby buildings, cause severe damage to nearby businesses, and minor damage to more than 50 houses in the adjoining neighborhood.

Although the perpetrator was not identified and his or her motivations are unclear, the act was likely an act of racially motivated violence by white residents who were attempting to drive the African-American institution from the community.

According to the Detroit News, less than a month after the sale of the building to New Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Joseph M. Vigliotti (the Realtor who had sold the building to the congregation) headed a committee of four Italian-Americans that called on the elders of the church and offered to buy it back for $75,000. The church officials said they asked the banker why the offer was made and he replied, they said, “that there might be trouble.” The congregation's elders voted against selling back the property. Vigliotti said he had told the church elders that there were “a lot of hot-heads in the neighborhood and that he could not tell what might happen." Indeed, the Detroit News observes, this incident was only one of many that had plagued Detroit's African-American community in those years. The congregation, however, remained at its Chene Avenue location.

“We have no intention of moving,” the Rev. Williams told the Pittsburgh Courier the following week, “and if the cowards who bombed the church think they frightened us, sadly they are in error.”

Mayor John C. Lodge also encouraged the congregation to remain in place, declaring, “It would be a disgrace to Detroit if you move,” and placed the building under 24-hour police protection. An estimated $25,000 in damages drew donations from area business owners, and soon the building was repaired. A subsequent bomb threat occurred when the church hosted the Michigan District Association convention the following year. Although many members had been driven away by the events, the congregation persevered. For over a year, worship continued in the church's education building while the main sanctuary was rebuilt. Repairs were completed in August 1929, and church membership rebounded.

The church continued to prosper at its Chene Avenue location for the next few decades. A 1954 church bulletin describes a slight debt, but is optimistic about a future expansion program.

The church was forced to move in 1960 when the Detroit Board of Education acquired the site for the construction of William E. Knudsen Junior High School. New Mt. Zion purchased the building vacated by the B'Nai David Synagogue for $140,000, and moved into the new facility on Nov. 13, 1960.

The Rev. Kenneth Davis, now associate pastor of the church and a member since 1961, does not recall why the congregation chose to move where it did, but is certain that no other site was ever considered. Mary Thomas, a member of the congregation since 1934, remembered the new location as an “up and coming” area where several church members had already called home. The move certainly provided New Mt. Zion with an opportunity to serve a rapidly growing African-American community in that section of the city.

In response to the church’s relocation, some members also moved to be closer to the new location, while others continued to reside near the old location. The congregation purchased a surplus Department of Street Railways bus from the city and used it to bring members from the old neighborhood to the new location, while other members drove their own cars. Many members did not move, according to Davis, but the church offset the difference by recruiting new members from the surrounding community. At the time, the church had approximately 1,700 members, placing it among the larger African-American congregations in the city. It had become one of Detroit's “premier churches” as, due to its seating capacity, it was able to host services for a large congregation as well as community events. A 1964 bulletin indicates a church office (no longer standing) located next door at 2220 Tuxedo Ave., while the pastor resided in a private home about a mile to the west, on Leslie Street in the city's Russell Woods neighborhood.

The Rev. James L. Newby, III was chosen as pastor in 1968 following the Nov. 17, 1967, death of Williams (a nearby church, Williams Memorial Baptist Church on 2565 Elmhurst, was named in honor of the late pastor). Under Newby, the church continued to prosper and expand its facilities. An addition to the building, now named the James L. Newby III Educational Wing, broke ground in 1992 and was completed in April of 1996. According to Davis, “many black churches were moving at the time, but we chose to remain here and expand. … We were the most reliable institution in the neighborhood.”

Throughout the 1990s and into the present century, the church continued to host a wide range of community events, serving a population much broader than the church membership. Newby, a Detroit Police Department chaplain, often used the space to hold funerals and other events for Detroit police officers. Newby passed away in 2002. The Rev. Jimmie T. Wafer was called to lead the church in 2003 and continues to serve to the present day.

Architecture of the building

Begun in 1921 and completed in 1922, Beth David Synagogue was the first, and among the most significant, major edifices constructed by Detroit's Jewish population in an area that by the 1920s had become the center of that community. As observed by sociologist Reynolds Farley, the building “reflects the faith of the first- and second-generation eastern European immigrants; their desire for an architecturally significant and uplifting synagogue, as well as their economic security."

Beth David was designed by the firm of P.R. Rossello, likely by architect John L. Popkin. Rossello's firm may have been best known for the now-demolished St. Cyril and Methodius church located at St. Cyril Street (originally Centerline Street) and Marcus Street in Detroit. The firm is also responsible for a Dominican convent, school and rectory on Van Dyke Avenue near 13 Mile Road in Warren; St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church on Macomb Street near St. Antoine Street; a Romanian Society hall at Farnsworth and Russell Streets; Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at Frederick and St. Antoine Streets; and a Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church at 14th and Buena Vista streets. Of these, only the latter is still standing, leaving Beth David as perhaps the most significant remaining example of Rossello's work.

The massive, cubelike structure is built of steel and concrete and clad in buff-colored, common-bond brick. A projecting entrance bay is composed of large stone blocks, extending upward to pierce the roofline, and topped by the words “BETH DAVID” in relief, flanking a stone medallion depicting the Tablets of the Law. Two winged lions, carved in stone, flank the entrance and sit on a string course that sits a tall story above ground. A shallow-pitched side-gable roof hides behind a parapet wall when viewed from the ground.

The building is Romanesque in style with a Neo-Byzantine influence. Its façade is dominated by a slightly-projecting central bay with a massive, recessed archway. The first floor features an arcaded, triple entrance with engaged, Ionic columns; above the entrance is a grouping of four windows, similarly arcaded, and separated by slender, Solomonic columns. Heavy, oak doors are located above grade and accessed by a broad, stone stairway. Above the doors are semicircular, stone panels with intricate reliefs depicting menorahs, the Star of David, and other symbols. Wrapping around the top of the building are an arcaded frieze and denticulated cornice in brick. Windows are tall and narrow, separated by floor with stone spandrels, and flanked with thin Solomonic columns.

The building interior features a large nave with an open floor plan, accessed by passing through a relatively shallow entrance vestibule. 1,600 theater-style seats, are arranged in gently-curving rows beneath a vast, vaulted ceiling. A U-shaped, cantilevered balcony curves around the second story on three sides. A sanctuary area with wood paneling is recessed between massive, wooden, engaged columns.

The building's seating has been altered since its original construction. The theater-style eats on the main floor are mid-20th century replacements for the original wooden pews. Folding chairs in the balcony, however, may be original to the building. The original configuration of Beth David placed the bimah and reader’s table at the front of the worship space, rather than at the center of the seating area as in some synagogues. Today, an altar is located where the bimah once stood. The interior is lit by tall, polychromatic leaded-glass windows, along with hanging, metal light fixtures. Suspended above the center of the space is a massive metal and glass chandelier, with backlit panels, memorializing the names of parents, spouses, and other family members of the building's founders, painted in an ornate script.

When New Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church occupied the structure in 1960, the new congregation chose to preserve the original synagogue architecture, making changes only when necessary to accommodate Christian services. A choir stand and baptismal pool were added, and a plaster medallion, above what is now the altar, depicting the Tablets of the Law was modified to include a cross. All other architectural details, including the seating, leaded-glass windows, decorative plaster and lighting fixtures remain unchanged.

Even the white, light blue, and gold color scheme remains, as it was when the building was occupied by Beth David Synagogue. A single-story, flat-roofed addition to the building was completed in 1996.

Last updated 18/09/2023