Like most blacks in the pre-Civil War South, the African Americans of the old Colonial town of Hampton, Va., had few choices when it came to worship.
Enslaved or free, illiterate or learned, they crowded shoulder to shoulder in the rear balconies of the white churches, forced there by laws that barred them from gathering by themselves. And despite outnumbering their white brethren by 9 to 1 in such places as Hampton Baptist Church, they had little say over how they practiced their faith.
Those long years of silence and submission came to an end with the upheaval that rocked this historic town during the Civil War.
Founded by a pioneering band of free and enslaved blacks, one of the first independent African American churches born in the conflict between North and South rose from the ashes of a place that had been abandoned and burned by its rebellious white population. So deeply did the roots of First Baptist Church take hold in this seemingly unpromising soil that its legacy can still be felt nearly 150 years later.
“I don’t know how they viewed sitting in the ‘Negro pews’ back then. But the fact is that they did fill the balcony. They wanted a place to worship,” former Hampton University historian and church member William Wiggins says.
“But there was always this longing for a church of their own where they could worship in their own way. And when the war gave them the chance, they took it right away.”
Few Southern locales had a black population more prepared to exploit a white power vacuum — and the crowds of runaway slaves — than Hampton, located in southeastern Virginia.
More than 200 free African Americans lived here in 1860, says historian Robert Engs, author of a groundbreaking study of Civil War Hampton called “Freedom’s First Generation.” And many were literate and skilled property owners.
Among them was Thomas Peake, husband of pioneering free black teacher Mary Peake, who died in 1862 after founding one of the first schools to teach the town’s burgeoning numbers of runaway slaves.
Also prominent was free black preacher William B. Taylor, a carpenter who hired out his time to purchase his own freedom and that of his wife and daughter.
For many years before the war, Taylor had served as the de facto head of Hampton’s “colored Baptist Church,” where he’d earned permission to perform nominal marriages between slaves. He’d also won fame as a “fiery exhorter,” practicing his oratorical skills at the 1856 dedication of Williamsburg’s black First Baptist Church as well as in clandestine worship meetings held in and around Hampton.
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SOURCE: Daily Press
Mark St. John Erickson