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Local church celebrates rich history of Juneteenth

DAYTON — On this Juneteenth holiday, a Dayton church is looking back at its past. The First Wesleyan Church was around while slavery was happening and when it ended.

With each bell ring, it’s a reminder of the immense history of the church.

The bell at the church is stacked away and has withstood the test of time.

Patricia Smith Griffin is the fourth-generation grandchild of Charity Davis Caesar Broady who was part of the United Daughters of Zion. She said, “It is a Miami Valley treasure that the bell ran on Emancipation Day has been preserved and has been cared for and cherished by this congregation. And it still rings today.”

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Daughters of Zion was a group of women who formed the First Wesleyan Church in 1842 in Dayton.

It was founded on the heels of pro-slavery mob attacks against people in the community of Africa Town.

It was near the canal basin area of the city’s east side. Those attacks caused some to leave the area except the founders of the church.

“The United Daughters of Zion dug their feet in and decided to stay and out of the smoke and ashes, First Wesleyan Church was built,” Smith-Griffin said.

She said the church became the glue of the community and the Underground Railroad.

“If you were coming from the south, through this Northwest Territory, there was literally no way for you to get from there to Canada without coming through Dayton and First Wesleyan Church provided safe shelter to those who were fleeing enslavement,” Smith-Griffin said.

But the church also prides itself on its emancipation celebration. They rang the bell at midnight on New Year’s Day in 1863, letting people know about the promised end of slavery, but the news did not reach everyone.

“We celebrate Juneteenth, June 19, 1865, because none of us are free until all of us are free. And, so when the last of the enslaved were told that they were free, that is why we officially celebrate our freedom as 1865, but the promised emancipation was 1862-1863, and one of the celebrations is written that the celebration at First Wesleyan was one of the very few if not the only celebration in the state,” Smith-Griffin said.

With more than 180 years of service behind them and Juneteenth now being a federal holiday, the church is looking toward its future.

George Coles has been Senior Pastor for three years.

“I feel a huge responsibility to continue the legacy that I’ve learned,” he said. “I’m hoping that this church celebrates 300-400 years because I think it has such a rich history.”

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