A leader among the bedrock institutions of North Omaha is Zion Baptist Church. One of the oldest congregations in Omaha, it was founded in 1884 and became the largest Black church in Omaha by 1900. It’s landmark building at 2215 Grant Street was designed by North Omaha native “Cap” Clarence Wigington, and its mission is still distinctly relevant more than 125 years after it was founded.
Zion has always been a place of high praise and worship. It was the largest Black church in Omaha from the 1890s through the 1960s, setting the tone for much of the community’s African American social, cultural and religious leadership. The congregation built its first church quickly in the 1880s, and was lauded for constructing such a beautiful new building after the 1913 Easter Sunday tornado.
Throughout its history, the church has reveled in being beautiful and warm. For instance, in 1896 the Morning World-Herald described Zion’s Easter service like this:
‘He Is Risen’ in letters of gold behind the altar, which was banked with flowers, sweet singing canaries in cages, gold fishes and vases of flowers about the altar had the effect of producing a happy greeting to the members yesterday morning that was pleasing to behold.
The church has been a place of celebration and praise through performance since its founding. Zion has regularly hosted nationally important performers, like Reverend Jonathan L. Caston and his choir from Trinity Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1939. Zion has been a member of many important religious organizations in Omaha’s history, too, including the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and the Greater Omaha Clergy Association.
Omaha’s Civil Rights movement has deep roots at Zion Baptist Church. Starting in the early 1910s, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began meeting at Zion for decades. William Monroe Trotter, editor of the militant pro-Black Boston Guardian, spoke at Zion Baptist Church in 1919, right before the lynching of Will Brown. In the 1920s, the church was the location of several anti-lynching meetings.
In the early 1950s, Omaha Urban League leader Whitney Young spoke at the church regularly, and Roy Wilkins from the NAACP did the same in the same year. A decade later in the early 1960s, Rev. Rudolph McNair of Zion Baptist Church was responsible for co-founding the Citizens Civic Committee for Civil Liberties, or 4CL. They met at the church too, strategizing action and planning vital steps that led to important advances for African Americans in Omaha.
According to Zion, you “never leave… feeling sad or empty. It is one of the friendliest churches in America. It has a glorious history and strong preaching and teaching ministries.” The church features a blend of traditional and contemporary worship styles, along with altar calls and a variety of ministries.
Worship and ministries at Zion are led by Rev. Kenneth Allen, Senior Pastor; Rev. James Clinton, Associate Minister; Rev. Andrew Finch, Associate Minister, and; Rev. Christopher McCroy, Associate Minister. Jesse Sharpe is the Chairman of Deacons; Cleveland Vaughn is the Chairman of Trustees; Gloria Epps is the Director of Christian Education, and; Gus McNair is the Minister of Music.
There have been countless important people who attended, led or who have been otherwise involved in Zion Baptist Church over the years. They included:
- W. H. C. Stephenson (c1825-1899), a doctor, preacher and civil rights activist who helped organize the congregation in the 1880s.
- Sgt. Allen McClare (1879-1944), a Buffalo Soldier who rode with Teddy Roosevelt in the Battle of San Juan Hill.
- Nebraska State Senator Edward Danner (1900-1970), who represented North Omaha for seven years.
- John Grant Pegg (1869-1916), an Omaha City Council member in 1906 who is hired as the first Black Inspector of Weights and Measures for the city in 1910.