After 150 years, the defining moments that make up the history of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church on Ripley Street can be assembled like panes in a stained glass window:
The church’s organization by 700 free black citizens after the Emancipation Proclamation was recognized in Montgomery in 1866. The construction of the first church on Columbus Street in 1867. The brick-by-brick construction of the current “Brick-A-Day” structure. The civil rights meetings held and the hours spent in terror when the Ku Klux Klan laid siege to the church in 1961.
If the story of First Baptist Church can be told in a hymn, those are but a few lines.
First Baptist Church kicked off its 150th anniversary celebration Friday night with a banquet dinner at the Renaissance Convention Center. The day before, Rev. E. Baxter Morris sat in the pews of his church digesting the history that surrounded him.
When Morris, the church’s ninth and longest serving pastor, was asked what he thought the church’s single defining moment was, he didn’t hesitate.
“Every Sunday morning,” Morris said.
The beauty of First Baptist Church lies in the church’s acknowledgement and preservation of its history. The strength of the church, however, has always been its commitment to progress and social change.
“You know the history is there. You know what’s behind you, but every day you face new challenges,” Morris said.
Historian Richard Bailey, who is also president of the Emancipation Association of Montgomery, said the church immediately became a home for scores of African Americans who were finding their way post-emancipation.
“When the Civil War ended in 1865, First Baptist Church laid the foundation for African Americans in the city. It was a beacon of hope. It was a foundation of worship. It was a place where people could feel there was a tomorrow,” Bailey said.
The church was founded in 1866 by former slaves of those who attended the First Baptist Church that now sits on South Perry Street. More importantly, the split was amicable and cemented a friendly relationship between what became two different colored branches of the same tree, according to Bailey.
“First Baptist Church set the standard for black and white relationships in this city,” Bailey said. “When black members of the white congregation wanted to separate in 1866, Rev. Tichenor helped them separate, raise funds, whatever those black ministers needed. They could depend on white ministers for their cooperation and that relationship maintains even to this day.”
To this day, the official legal name of the second First Baptist Church is First Baptist Church Colored.
“When I got here some said we had to change it, but I said, ‘No that’s history. You don’t change your history.’ That was a time when we made more progress we’ve ever made in our lives. Historically that name still has significance. We bookmarked that, because you don’t want your children to ever forget the important moments along the way that say, ‘This is how you got to where you are now,'” Morris said.
Church members completed the first church in 1867 on Columbus Street. In the years before that structure burned down, the church and its members began a tradition of committing to a higher calling.
“Early on the church had that sense of commitment to a cause larger than itself,” Morris said.
It was on Columbus Street that both the Alabama Baptist State Convention and the National Baptist Convention were formed, the latter of which Morris said is now the “largest religious gathering of blacks in the country.”
Some church members founded Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and in 1873, First Baptist parishioner Latty J. Williams became the first person to introduce a civil rights bill to the state legislature, according to Bailey.
“Many people talk about (First Baptist Church Rev.) Abernathy and what he did in the civil rights movement. Almost nobody talks about the fact that the first civil rights bill to be presented in Alabama legislature was presented by a member of First Baptist Church,” Bailey said.
Source: Montgomery Advertiser | Andrew J. Yawn