University Community

Community unites during 'Berry Day Week' to raise awareness and celebrate local Black History

Wild cherry berry ice cream, raspberry lemon muffins, even a blueberry facial treatment – if you walked around uptown Athens, Ohio in May of 2023, you likely stumbled across a business offering a "Berry Day Week" special. Though the weeklong celebration offered a plethora of good deals and tasty treats, the meaning behind Berry Day Week sought to unite the community in raising awareness for initiatives to preserve local history.

About Berry Day

The Berry Hotel was established in 1882 by African American entrepreneur Edward C. Berry and his wife Martha Jane Berry. Opening in 1882 with just 20 rooms, at its height the hotel offered 90 rooms while also offering a restaurant, barbershop, coffee shop and ballroom. The Berrys were regarded as successful Black entrepreneurs in southeast Ohio, with travelers going out of their way to spend a night or two in Athens and enjoy a meal in the restaurant of the hotel.

Edward and Martha Berry also contributed the land and funds for the construction of Mount Zion Baptist Church during the early 1900s.

A newspaper clipping of Mount Zion Baptist Church prior to the dedication ceremony.
A newspaper clipping of Mount Zion Baptist Church prior to the dedication ceremony.

Upon researching and preparing ideas to help raise funds to restore the church, Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society board member Avery Nelson, B.A. '16, came across an interesting tidbit about Berry Day. She read in the caption of a photo that in 2004, Athens Mayor Rick Abel declared May 23 as “Berry Day” in Athens, Ohio. 

Thinking this was common knowledge, Nelson brought it up at a committee meeting. She was surprised to learn that the day had not been recently celebrated, and fellow members were intrigued and excited at the prospect of commemorating the local holiday.

“From then, we were off and running,” said Director of Communications and Media for the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society Dr. Tee Fordahmed. An alumna of Ohio University, Fordahmed graduated with her Ph.D. in mass communication from OHIO in 1995. 

Eager to make the celebration a success, the board quickly reached out to local businesses to gauge interest in offering “Berry Day Week” specials that would donate proceeds to Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society.

“Everyone was really excited to join. People went above and beyond, I’m so grateful,” said Nelson.

In only 3.5 weeks, the campaign included participation from 13 local businesses, t-shirt designs, and support from the City of Athens.

A flyer lists all the local Athens businesses that participated in specials for "Berry Day Week."
A flyer lists the local Athens businesses that participated in specials for "Berry Day Week."

Windows to history

On the corner of North Congress and West Carpenter streets in uptown Athens, Ohio, stands Mount Zion Baptist Church. Every step, brick and window of the building represents the region’s rich history and helps tell an even larger story of generations of Athens’ Black community.

From 1905 to 1990, the Mount Zion Baptist Church was a thriving gathering place for the Black community in Athens and across southeast Ohio. After the Berrys donated the land, free and formerly enslaved Black Americans constructed the building, which remains as one of the last examples of Black architecture in southeastern Ohio. The church served as a hub for Black culture, religion, and education. 

In order to restore the church for future use, the historic windows need to be temporarily removed from the building in order to be restored and preserved.

“The windows are probably the most precious asset of that building,” said Dr. Fordahmed. “Some built, as we’ve learned, had been crafted in 1906 in Japan. The technology is almost unduplicatable. That’s when we realized we’ve got to save those windows.”

“They really are the soul of the place,” added Nelson. “You go in there and see the beauty in it. When you see the windows, that’s what really grounds and connects the history of the place.”

The society received a National Endowment for the Arts and a National Trust for Preservation African American Heritage Action Fund grant to aid in the building’s restoration. Berry Day Week and other fundraising efforts are to help gain the remainder of necessary funds. During the church’s renovation, the windows will be safely removed, re-leaded, and stored properly. The long-term goal is to transform the church into a Black Cultural Center.

“We are trying to restore the building and turn it into a Black cultural center, where we can provide community and support for everybody, but especially for BIPOC individuals in Athens who are from here or just passing through,” Nelson explained.

Nelson, who was born and raised in Athens, is personally invested in the town’s need for a cultural center. She described how organizations like Mount Zion can help local individuals like herself navigate their own racial identity.

“For me personally, what connects me to it [Mount Zion] is its overall goal of providing community and allowing people that are here to see themselves in the town,” Nelson said.

As a person of color, Nelson explained the importance of being able to see oneself in and resonate with local history. Learning about Black Americans’ contributions of to Athens history has deepened her appreciation and understanding of her hometown.

“As I’ve joined, I’ve been studying a lot about the Black history of Athens. It is really kind of amazing. You experience Athens different when you know more of its history,” she explained.

As her passion has grown for local history, Nelson is hopeful that others will be able to experience what she has through her research.

“If you know it, you can see it everywhere," Nelson said. "It completely changes the way you interact with Athens. It really does change everything. It’s been something I’ve gotten out of it immediately, and I really want other people to have that and experience that too.

Moving forward 

The City of Athens expressed its support of celebrating Berry Day through dedication of the “Edward and Martha Berry Conference Room.” Ohio University faculty and staff, community members, and city officials gathered in Athens City Hall for a ribbon cutting.

The Edward and Martha Berry Conference Room located in the Athens City Building
The Edward and Martha Berry Conference Room located in the Athens City Building. Photo provided by the City of Athens.

“Today you are standing in the soon to be officially named Edward and Martha Berry Conference Room,” said City of Athens DEIA/Training Coordinator Lacey Rogers at the event. “When Tee reached out to inform me of Mount Zion’s plans to celebrate Berry Day for the first time, as a part of a weeklong celebration called Berry Day Week, I loved the idea. I especially loved the opportunity this presented to highlight the accomplishments of people of color and continue to preserve this history.”

Rogers is a three-time alumna of Ohio University. In 2011, she earned a bachelor's of arts in women’s and gender studies, and bachelor's of science in visual communications, commercial photography. She continued on to earn a master's degree of education in clinical mental health and rehabilitation counseling in 2014 and a master's of public administration in 2016. Rogers was hired as the city's first diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) training coordinator in 2022. 

“As the dedicated members of Mount Zion continue to fight tirelessly to preserve another important part of Black History (the physical building located at 32 West Carpenter Street), I am confident the City of Athens will continue to support these efforts as it aligns with our commitment to keeping diversity, equity, and inclusion at the forefront of our community values,” said Rogers.

Mayor Steve Patterson proclaimed that for the rest of his residency, Berry Day will be celebrated throughout Athens. 

Local community members at the ribbon cutting of the Edward and Martha Berry Conference Room in the Athens City Council Building.
Lacey Rogers, Ada-Woodson Adams, and Dr. Tee Fordahmed perform the ribbon cutting of the Edward and Martha Berry conference room in the Athens City Building. Photo provided by the City of Athens.

Nelson is enthusiastic for the potential for future Berry Day celebrations. With more time in the future for planning, she hopes for an interactive community celebration with creative Berry Day specials.

“I see Berry Day in the future being a kickoff to the celebration of Black History in Athens because it’s so close to Juneteenth,” she said.

And as the preservation of Mount Zion comes closer to fruition, so does the potential for learning more about southeastern Ohio’s Black history.

“The Berrys are the tip of the iceberg,” said Nelson. “They are the most well-known. They’re the easiest to get information about because of their business and their success. That was just two people, there were hundreds more here. And that’s just in the city of Athens. When you go out to Athens County and surrounding counties there’s an even richer history that needs to be exposed, explored and taught.”

The preservation society hopes to begin the window removal process at Mount Zion this summer in order to move forward on the building’s renovation.

“If we don’t preserve Mount Zion, all the rest of the history that had been put there by our Black ancestors will be eliminated from this section of southeast Ohio,” reflected Dr. Fordahmed. “We are attempting to keep something alive and not erase all of the history of our ancestors here in the Athens region. We are so happy that others are on board with us.”

More information on the history of Mount Zion Baptist Church can be found at this website.

Donations toward the restoration and preservation of Mount Zion's windows can be made at this website.

July 20, 2023
Jordan Schmitt