The Rev. David Lewis said the church was originally painted red and was used as the church inside the black mining camp at Sloss. The adjoining cemetery has graves with inscriptions that go back to 1871, giving a time of reference for historians.
According to Lewis, things with the mining church were fine until the early 1930s. At that point, he said the white miners went on strike, but, because the black miners were paid so much less than their white counterparts, the mine owners wouldn’t give in to the demands. At some point, the white miners convinced the black miners to join them on the picket lines, aided by a leader in the black community, known to Lewis only as “Daddy Gabe.”
This strike dealt a blow to the mine owners and they demanded the black workers move out of the camp houses and move their church to another location.
In or around 1933, the church members moved the church from its original location at the mining camp in Sloss, a mile or so away into an area known as Union Camp.
Moving a church building the size of Lilly Hill in the 1930s was no small task and required the workers and their horses and mules to pull the large building by rolling it on logs. Lewis said he believes the process took a couple of days to complete, but the congregation persisted to save their beloved church.
Now, the church’s congregation is once again hoping to save the church that once served as the center of the community life in Dora. The church’s roof is badly damaged, allowing water to leak into the church and destroying the wood in the roof and walls. The smell of mildew lingers heavy in the church sanctuary and has forced the church members to find another location to have their services.
Lewis said the bells in the church, long silent now, once served as notice to the community if someone passed away as well as calling the congregation to church on Sunday morning.
“If the bell rung through the week, you knew somebody had died,” Lewis said.
Those pieces of history will be lost if action isn’t taken soon to preserve the aging and damaged church.
The congregation moved out of the church in August and currently meets at the Dora Civic Center on the second and fourth Sunday each month. They have received a land donation across the street from the existing church and hope to begin construction soon.
Although the pastor and congregation are focused on the future of the church, they don’t want the historic building to be lost for future generations and are hoping the state’s historic society or other organizations interested in preserving Walker County’s heritage will help them to save the building that stood witness to the struggles following the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement that tore the nation apart.
“As I can count, this is probably about the oldest standing building in Walker County — I know it’s the oldest black building — because it’s been here about 143 years,” Lewis said.
The congregation has been cleaning the church out to preserve what they can, and found a Bible they believe to have been printed in the late 1700s or early 1800s. Lewis said he has been in contact with the Bankhead House, who he hopes will be able to help date the Bible. There is also an old piano, benches, chandeliers and other items that the congregation believe have historical value.
The Lilly Hill Cemetery, now separated from its namesake church, still stands in Sloss but hasn’t fared much better than the aging building. It is overgrown and covered with weeds, brush and pine saplings. Lewis said the city cleaned it once a few years ago, but without regular maintenance, had become overgrown again.
Lewis said the younger generation just doesn’t seem to want to put in the effort to maintain the church and cemetery, and the congregation that remembers the history has aged past caring for it. He said he hopes the attention to the story will reinvigorate the area’s residents and, hopefully, preserve the church and cemetery for future generations.