Zion Union Heritage Museum Art

“The Journey” stands outside Zion Union Heritage Museum in Hyannis. Photo by Janet Murphy Robertson

Zion Union Heritage Museum marks a decade

A bronze statue of an African American man holding the world stands outside the small former church that is now the Zion Union Heritage Museum on North Street in Hyannis. Its title, “The Journey,” is the museum’s theme, celebrated through the contributions of African Americans, Cape Verdeans, Wampanoags and people of color on Cape Cod, illuminating their little-known history to locals, school groups and travelers to the Cape alike.

The museum, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2018, can trace the start of its journey to 1909 when William Drew, a Baptist lay leader, took issue with his congregation when they refused a black woman participation. With two others, Drew bought land and built the original small, spired wooden chapel where, as its pastor, he preached to blacks. The structure was added on to over the years.

Harold Tobey, Zion’s first executive director, grew up in Hyannis in a small house without electricity a hundred yards from Zion, attending services there as his forebears had. When the mixed congregation moved to a larger church elsewhere in Hyannis, Tobey, who became Barnstable’s first black police officer and president of the town council, didn’t want to see the building demolished. He and John L. Reed, an award-winning retired teacher and Zion’s current executive director, worked with 15 other founders to conserve the building for its current purpose. Enabled by funding through the Lyndon Paul Lorusso Charitable Foundation and the Town of Barnstable Community Preservation Committee, the museum opened in 2008.

Through a collection of artifacts, art, books and documents, visitors can better understand slavery, lynching, bigotry and Jim Crow segregation, as well as the Civil Rights movement and the continuing peaceful struggle for justice and equality by people of color and their allies. Tobey, who is of African American and Wampanoag descent, recalls, “In my youth, discrimination was in the schools. My mother couldn’t get a job unless she wanted to clean houses in Hyannis Port. There were no jobs for males of color, save for landscaper or cook. This went on for many years.” He adds, “Things have changed, but there is still discrimination here; it went underground. It’s in people’s attitudes. Sadly there’s even blowback on the Cape, with so many people now against immigration and people of color.”