The town is rich in history — full of stories of how people of religion, education and commerce took a meandering course from the mid 19th Century toward modern times. To those who appreciate such things, the past is always present in Mount Zion, visible in some of the old structures that stand as landmarks, but always at risk of being lost as memories fade.
Jack Dorsey, former mayor of the town, is the guardian of many of Mount Zion’s stories. Born in south Georgia, but a resident for nearly 60 years, he has become the town’s institutional memory – and has even made a little history himself.
“When I came to Mount Zion in 1956, J. Roy Martin was still living,” Dorsey says. “He was the great grandson of Dr. Hicks Martin, who founded Mount Zion. When (Martin) started getting real old, he didn’t have any real children … and so I inherited all of his stuff that started from his great-grandfather down through him. When he died, there was a room in his house about 12 feet wide (and) about 20 feet long, and it was packed in like cordwood.”
Apparently, Dorsey says, the Martin family never threw anything away, and the stuff packed into that room included piles of photographs, papers and newspaper clippings. Pieced together, they tell the story of how the town came into existence.
“Mount Zion was nothing until about 1852 (when) Dr. Hicks Martin, who was a Methodist minister and a medical doctor, moved (here) from Cherokee County,” Dorsey said.
Martin founded the Mount Zion United Methodist Church, effectively giving the place its name, building it on land acquired from settlers who moved in afterwards. At the time, the Methodist church had undergone a split on the issue of slavery. Long before the Civil War, the church had been established on principles opposed to slavery. But over time, leaders of its Southern branches came into such a conflict on the issue that many left the main body. Martin’s church, however, remained part of the Northern branch.
This affiliation with the northern church continued as the next major player in Mount Zion’s history, the Rev. James Mitchell, entered the scene.
Mitchell was a pugnacious Irishman, who took over the Mount Zion church in 1877. He had been a fierce abolitionist before the war, but his views embraced not only emancipation of slaves, but also the more extreme view that ex-slaves should be sent away to overseas colonies. This was a view that he shared early on with Abraham Lincoln, who appointed Mitchell as Commissioner of Emigration in 1862.
However, Lincoln’s public support of forced emigration of former slaves began to fade as the war progressed, and Mitchell’s influence with the president also dissipated. He embroiled himself in a fierce argument with government officials who had shut off funding for his office and eventually left the office altogether, to return to the ministry.
“He came down here and noticed that all the people in this area were small farmers (and) there were no schools,” Dorsey said.
So Martin convinced church leaders to establish a series of boarding schools, one of which would be the Mount Zion Seminary, which opened its doors on Dec. 6, 1880.
Although its goal was to train students for the ministry, Dorsey says that only occurred in the last two grades of the seminary’s classes. In lower grades, students received a basic education. As the century turned, the Mount Zion Seminary became the only one of church’s boarding schools to really flourish.
Although the seminary building has now been replaced with another school building, some of its traces remain. For example, the tiny frame building on Eagle Drive, built in 1908, served as the seminary’s library. After a new school facility was built on the site of the seminary in the late 1950s, the library continued to serve the community as its city hall.
That was about the time that Dorsey arrived in the community. Discharged from the Marine Corps, Dorsey was headed home to Pulaski County when he stopped in Bremen to visit relatives. That is when he learned that a new company called Southwire was paying wages that, to him, seemed like a fortune. Dorsey quickly became part of the Mount Zion community and eventually served as mayor, where he conducted meetings in the tiny old City Hall until the new building was established. Dorsey has added to the history of the town by starting its police department, hiring the first women to serve with the city’s fire department, and leading in the conversion of a Sewell textile mill into a library and community center.
History and education and are clearly priorities for Dorsey. He has a direct relationship with the past, having grown up on stories told by his grandfather, who was born in 1866, and by talking with World War I veterans, including J. Roy Martin, who left Dorsey all the Mount Zion material he now carefully protects.
Dorsey was a pioneer in special education as a teacher in decades past, but despite holding many college degrees he did not have a high school diploma until 2003, thanks to legislation he helped craft by which veterans whose education was interrupted by the call to arms can obtain a diploma for free.
“I tell everybody that if you go to college first, high school is a snap,” he says.