Butcher walks through the dimly lit museum he has curated in a pole barn just beside his house. The items, like a large collection of photos, have come from people in the community, and Butcher keeps a hold on the stories he was told by older people when he was young. He looks upon the collection with reverence, a deep respect for the past of Southeast Ohio and his ancestors who contributed to the history.
The preservation of the culture and the history of Black people in Athens County is something many residents of the region, whether permanent or here for a short time with Ohio University, have never heard of. However, there are many people working to preserve the past and the future of the community.
Butcher has spent his life educating those from around the region on the significance of Tabler Town, also known as Kilvert to many today. In its early days, Tabler Town was a safe town in Ohio for self-emancipated and formerly enslaved people to migrate to.
The People of Color Museum is full of historical items from people who have lived in the region. With these historical items, Butcher tells a story about the arrival of the Tabler family to the United States as well as the history of the town named after them.
Michael Tabler founded Tabler Town circa the 1830s because of his affection for Hannah Tabler, a formerly enslaved woman, and her children. He purchased and emancipated them from slavery, and they lived together in Tabler Town until their deaths.
For Butcher, the town has ties to his family, as Hannah was his eighth great-grandmother, strengthening his connection to the history.
Jesse Jarrold-Grapes | Photo Editor
David Butcher stands at a grave in one of two cemetaries just outside of one of the sites he has curated into a museum to tell the stories of Black history in the region.
However, Tabler Town has been overlooked for years, and people in the region have forgotten the importance of why the name must stay today, Butcher said. The name is tied back to Tabler Town’s roots as a safe place for formerly enslaved people and others who were discriminated against.
Butcher works towards spreading the word of Tabler Town with the People of Color Museum, for the history is much bigger than what is scratched by the surface.
He feels his ancestors bestowed the history to him, and he is dedicated to preserving it, along with their memory. It has laid the foundational, metaphorical land Athens County sits upon today, he said.
“It is not something I studied for, it's not something that was put in a book,” Butcher said. “There's something that your ancestors see in you when you're growing up that makes you the person that you are. So I was always listening to old people, always listening to their stories. People giving me items (like) ‘Here, keep this,’ ‘Here, I want you to have this.’ I've done very well, but I'm getting older. And it's up to me, not just me, but other family members as well, to see that this history is passed on to the next generation.”
All of these experiences growing up inspired him to create the People of Color Museum to honor and preserve the memory of people of color in the region.
“The long term goal of People of Color Museum is to establish a new museum in Tabler Town that will be there to help continue this story, and help the community,” Butcher said. “It will be self-sustaining.”
Butcher believes that the memory of his ancestors has been passed on to younger generations, like his nephews, Kitton Butcher and Christopher Butcher, niece, Joanna Flowers, and Brianna Walker, a young woman residing in Tabler Town, and he hopes others find the willingness to learn and preserve the history as well.
The People of Color Museum is only one example of a resource on Black history in Athens County. The area has a number of other historical places to learn more about a relatively unknown history.
On North Congress Street stands Mount Zion, once a Baptist Church in Athens. Now it has turned into a landmark of preservation, as a soon-to-be cultural center and economic hub for the Black community in Athens.
Jesse Jarrold-Grapes | Photo Editor
The previously named Mt. Zion Baptist Church stands on N Congress St on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.
The group working to turn it into these things is The Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society. It was launched as a non-profit in 2013, and it formed a board to help direct the mission and vision of renovating and restoring the historical monument.
After falling apart for many years due to disrepair, Mount Zion is not in facilitative use, but work toward its renovation is underway. Mount Zion was a staple gathering place for many Black families in and around the Athens area.
“Because the Black population has dwindled to a very low number, we didn’t think restoring it to the original church is (what Athens County needed),” Ada Woodson-Adams, president of The Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society, said. “We thought what Athens and Athens County in the Appalachian area needed was a Black cultural space to showcase the history of the people who came to this area, and who thrived for a long time in this area. This is what we're trying to do at this point.”
The people involved in The Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society have been working for years to preserve the church’s legacy. The group has worked intently on a number of projects to restore the church to its full potential as a gathering place and historical center.
Woodson-Adams was born and raised in Nelsonville, and she was baptized and married in Mount Zion, solidifying her everlasting connection to the church.
“Mount Zion, historically speaking, has been the center of the Black cultural experiences of people who lived in this area,” Woodson-Adams said.
Athens was a safe place for people to live and thrive in the early 1800s, Woodson-Adams said, and it was a place for opportunities. But as time went on and the population began to grow, job opportunities began to diminish for Black people in the region, and many families moved away with no intention of coming back.
“My late husband and I are a rarity, that we wanted to come back and live in an area that had rejected us,” Woodson-Adams said. “Not only did we come back, but we wanted to come back and give back to the community. That's what we did, and that's what I'm still doing.”
“Not only did we come back, but we wanted to come back and give back to the community. That's what we did, and that's what I'm still doing.”—Ada Woodson-Adams
Oftentimes, people are drawn to interact and engage socially with people that look like themselves, Woodson-Adams said. This was and still is difficult for Black people in Athens today.
Woodson-Adams said in the past OU did not encourage the retention of Black professionals, leading to a lack of them in the Athens area. She said many people who have worked with Mount Zion in the past have now moved away for other opportunities, and if retention was the way it should be, this would not be a problem.
Elizabeth Williams, board member of the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society, like Woodson-Adams, said Mount Zion was a close and committed space for Black people in and around Athens. She believes OU has provided greater support for it in recent years than in years past.
“Now, I believe they are very active in preserving,” Williams said. “They live and learn.”
Butcher said he’s had not only students but also professors visit his museum and leave with a wealth of new knowledge under their belt.
“There were professors that would come here and spent their whole careers not knowing,” Butcher said. “The academia world, let's just say, can be very complicated and difficult, but I'm glad to see that changing. Now I'm affiliated with all kinds of professors who want to bring students down, send students down ... We've gotten a lot of help. That helps us preserve our story.”
Trevellya Ford-Ahmed, the communications and media director for the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society, believes the support from OU has increased tremendously, but still believes there are lessons that need to be remembered and taught.
Ford-Ahmed believes there are many topics of historical importance, one being the destruction of the nationally renowned Berry Hotel in 1974. The Berry Hotel was owned and run by Edward and Martha “Mattie” Berry, who ran it during a time when Athens was hostile toward Black people. It became a renowned place in Athens and beyond for its top-notch services and memorable architecture. It was innovative for its time, Ford-Ahmed said.
Today there is a need to educate about history of this sort, which Ford-Ahmed, along with the other members of the preservation society, plans to make happen through projects like Mount Zion’s renovation.
With a grant from the Central Appalachian Network Fund, Ford-Ahmed was able to pitch an idea for a film, with a working title of “Black Wall Street Athens County.” This film is now a reality and will take an in-depth look at Black-owned businesses, schools and more that have been destroyed in Athens County over the years. The Berry Hotel is only one of these examples.
Ford-Ahmed has high hopes for the project.
Currently employed at OU, Lisa Flowers-Clements, assistant director for academic support and advising in the Office of Multicultural Success and Retention, grew up in Washington County. She has thought a lot about Appalachia and how it is viewed today by those in the region and those coming into the region for education.
Jesse Jarrold-Grapes | Photo Editor
David Butcher explains his lineage as the one of the descendants of Hannah Tabler on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 at one of the sites of the historical collection he has currated to tell the story of his family and the known Black history of the Athens area.
Flowers-Clements feels today the historical and current connection to Black people in Appalachia is not acknowledged by many in the Athens area. However, she thinks there are intentional actions behind the exclusion of people of color in this dialogue.
“I'm not sure that it's forgotten accidentally. I think it was intentionally not included in a lot of ways,” Flowers-Clements said. “Even if we look at when someone says ‘Appalachian’ – what automatically comes to mind? It's typically not someone of color.”
Alongside the underrepresentation of Black people in Appalachia, Flowers-Clements believes there are aspects of OU history that students are not taught that are necessary for understanding where they go to school.
“I would say it's all of our responsibility to make sure that the history remains alive and well,” Flowers-Clements said. “And that includes me, so now I'm thinking ‘Okay am I doing enough to make sure that this history is preserved.’ And then not just preserved but told … We also need to tell that history and speak about it and make sure that it is acknowledged when we talk about the rich history of Appalachia – that we're including all of that rich history and not just a subsection of the history.”
As for university connections, Mount Zion has been able to collaborate with many students, feeling a sense of support from those who are eager to help whenever it’s needed.
“There's been an awakening of information,” Williams said. “We have so much collaboration and support from the students and administration of OU at this period of time. We can always use more, but they're very generous with their efforts … Every time we put a call out for student involvement or something, there seems to be someone that pops up and helps us out.”
Within OU, Black students from the region are able to find support among different student organizations and more. Winsome Chunnu-Brayda, director of OU’s Multicultural Center, said OU has worked hard to make sure there are spaces for Black students, including around 30 student organizations.
“I think it's crucial to keep this history alive for all the groups that are at OU,” Chunnu-Brayda said. “It's a part of the university's history. It shows those students from those communities can learn as well as every other Bobcat can.
Within Athens, there are businesses who contribute to Mount Zion in hopes of helping the preservation of the history crucial to understanding the region.
Jesse Jarrold-Grapes | Photo Editor
A plaque on Mulberry Street pays respects and marks the spot an Athens mob lynched Christopher Davis, 24, in 1881.
Riley Kinnard, the general manager at Kindred Market, said donating to places such as Mount Zion is important in cultivating relationships and connections with places making an impact on Athens. Kinnard said it was important to the business to pick organizations supporting racial equality.
Support from small businesses and other organizations in the region are an important aspect of the preservation of Black history; however, Ford-Ahmed believes the same amount of support needs to be given to Black businesses as well.
“Black entrepreneurship, buildings, business, etc., has not been given, I think, the credit or the recognition, just as so much Black history has not,” Ford-Ahmed said.
Ford-Ahmed believes it’s important for there to not only be support for the remembrance of this history but also to support and lift up Black people in the region today.
OU is a new territory for many students, and many students don’t know the history behind their new home, but with the help of the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society, Butcher, student organizations, local businesses and more, people are able to not only learn about but also help with the preservation of Black Appalachian culture and history in Athens.
“Building our future by preserving our past, that’s why we do what we do,”—Trevellya Ford-Ahmed