Bertha Jackmon worked for six years to win national recognition for a padlocked Devon church where the plaster is peeling and the walls have yellowed with age.
The Mount Zion A.M.E. Church historian scanned documents and squinted at microfilm between working as a project manager and raising teenagers.
"Many times I thought, 'Let me just do one more click' " on the computer, said Jackmon, of Paoli. "Then it's five hours later."
Jackmon was fascinated by the story of Mount Zion, a church whose role in the fight against school segregation came 20 years before the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
In January, the recognition that Jackmon and her team had long sought was granted when Mount Zion was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The church and its role in the battle known as the "School Fight" are now officially acknowledged, and a day of celebration is planned for May 16.
Between 1932 and 1934, Mount Zion was the meeting place for the families of more than 200 students who fought a move by school officials in Tredyffrin and Easttown Townships to place the youngsters in segregated schools.
The children were assigned to run-down elementary school buildings, while their white classmates were to attend a new elementary school building set to open in fall 1932.
The black parents refused and pulled their children out of school.
"I remember the day my dad came to school. I was wearing a yellow dress," said Bessie Cunningham, 93, of Thorndale. "He pointed his finger at [me and my brother] and motioned for us to come. We never went back."
The parents joined with the Bryn Mawr NAACP and Philadelphia lawyer Raymond Pace Alexander to fight the ruling. Mount Zion's original building, constructed in 1882, served as ground zero. The church, along North Fairfield Road about a mile north of Lancaster Avenue, built a new building adjacent to the old one in 1990.
During the controversy, parents protested and were jailed and fined for refusing to send their children to school. Some students were sent to nearby districts to continue their education. Others just didn't go to class.
In March 1934, state Attorney General William A. Schnader intervened, urging the district to rescind the ruling. It did, and most students returned to school with the white students.
'People I know'
Jackmon knew nothing about the historic chapter in her church's history until 2005, when she read an article about the fight written by Roger Thorne, former president of the Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society.
"I said, 'How come I never heard about this?' " Jackmon said. "These are people that I know."
Four years later, the Rev. April M. Martin, then newly appointed as the church's pastor, named Jackmon to the church historian post and directed her to go after a place on the register.
In her research, Jackmon found that members had tried to gain national recognition for the church since the 1970s but to no avail.
Jackmon squeezed in hours of research when she could, compiling photos, deeds, and documents. The church also enlisted Robert Wise Jr. and Seth Hinshaw, of Wise Preservation Planning L.L.C., to shepherd the application.
In January, the church was officially listed.
"I wanted to scream, but I couldn't, because I was inside of a building," Jackmon said of the moment she found out.
The old church is one of 13 area sites to be listed since October 2013. Others include the George Nakashima Woodworker Complex in Solebury Township, the Henry F. Ortlieb Co. Bottling House in Philadelphia, and the Jenkintown Wyncote train station.
Recognized sites get little more than their name on the registry, although the status can help to attract grants to aid in preservation, said April Frantz, a reviewer for the National Register Program's Eastern Region.
"It's about building local pride," Frantz said.
There is plenty of that at Mount Zion.
"We are very excited," Martin said. The church is planning a celebration. Martin is hoping the designation will help the church raise funds for the planned restoration of the original church.
Though Jackmon is overjoyed, the future is a constant worry. Mount Zion is a small church with only 40 members and an average Sunday attendance of about 20.
But Martin remains optimistic. The pastor would like a renovated church building to host special services and community meetings and become a stop on local history tours. Church members recently announced a campaign to raise $1 million for the renovations.
"We are a David in a land of Goliaths," Martin said. "We are a big force to be reckoned with."
BY THE NUMBERS
Members at Mount Zion A.M.E. Church.
Average Sunday attendance.
Area sites listed on the National Register
of Historic Places since October 2013.EndText