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Kenyon Course Paves Way for Historical Marker for Mount Vernon Church

GAMBIER, Ohio — A new historical marker honoring Wayman Chapel AME Church in Mount Vernon as the first Black church in Knox County was made possible by research from students at Kenyon College.

A celebration and dedication of the sign — part of the Ohio Historical Marker program — will take place Saturday, Sept. 23 at the former church, 102 W. Ohio Ave. This will be followed by a reception on the third floor of the nearby Kenyon Wright Center, 400 S. Main St. 

Kenyon faculty, students, local government officials and community members will be in attendance, and some former church members from Houston and Atlanta are expected to come. Light refreshments will be served; parking is available on South Gay Street, adjacent to the Wright Center.

Ric Sheffield, Kenyon professor emeritus of sociology and legal studies, oversaw students’ work as part of his “Diversity in the Heartland” course that featured community-engaged learning. Students interviewed local residents, collected oral histories and church artifacts, and reviewed local archives as part of their work before writing up the application.

“I’m extremely proud of students who’ve come to not only do the academic research-related work but formed those partnerships, those relationships with members of the community and are now giving back.” Sheffield said. “I’m just absolutely delighted. Not only did they have an amazing learning experience, but they also contributed something to the local community that’s permanent.”

Saturday’s celebratory events will include the screening of a rough cut of a documentary about the church that Jonathan Tazewell, Thomas S. Turgeon Professor of Drama and Film at Kenyon who graduated from the college in 1984, has been working on with students. The film showing will take place at the Wright Center immediately after the ceremony.

The Ohio Historical Marker program, conceived in 1953, has placed more than 1,700 markers across the state to share the stories of significant people, places and events, according to the Ohio History Connection. Between 20 and 30 new markers are added each year. Three such markers can be found on Kenyon’s campus; one at the corner of Wiggin Street and Chase Avenue honoring the College as a “pioneer in higher education;” one adjacent to Rosse Hall honoring former Kenyon President Lorin Andrews who was among “the first to fight” during the Civil War; and the third is located outside of Finn House, the home of the Kenyon Review, and was installed to honor distinguished poet and literary critic John Crowe Ransom and the renowned literary journal, the Kenyon Review.

The text of the new historical marker reads:

“Wayman Chapel was dedicated in 1874 as part of Ohio’s Third District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The first Black church in Knox County, it began in 1870 under the guidance of Rev. James A. Ralls. The congregation met in local homes and church basements until completing their red brick church at 102 West Ohio Avenue in 1876. Additions made 1947-1948 included an upgraded facade. For more than a century, Wayman Chapel provided an educational, cultural, and spiritual hub for its members as well as the wider Black community of Mt. Vernon.”

The church, which is no longer active, is believed to have held its final service about 20 years ago, said Sheffield, a native of Mount Vernon who was familiar with the church growing up.

Columbus resident Monique Kamara, who graduated from Kenyon in 2022 and took part in Sheffield’s class, said the experience changed her outlook on the world. She plans to attend the dedication this weekend.

“As a girl from a predominantly Black part of Columbus, Ohio … ‘Diversity in the Heartland’ challenged me and made me realize that we are everywhere and that marginalized groups exist in multiple areas in places,” she said. “It’s just that no one talks about them nor credits them for whatever cultural contributions that they do give to their communities.”

This will be the second marker to result from the efforts of Kenyon students. Previously, they succeeded in establishing a historical marker at the former location of Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, the second African American congregation in Mount Vernon and the only religious property within the Mount Vernon Downtown Historic District. Now closed, its cornerstone at 13 S. Mulberry St. was laid in 1915.

Vahni Kurra, a Brooklyn resident who graduated from Kenyon in 2020, was part of “Diversity in the Heartland” and worked on the project involving Mt. Calvary.

“It was really impactful and really emotionally moving,” Kurra said of the interviews and local historical research. “Just getting to know the ways that this history had a legacy that lives on and the way that it’s affected people, it was very special.”

Saturday’s dedication ceremony and the reception that follows are free and open to all members of the Kenyon community as well as interested members of the public and media.

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