How Charles Henry Johnson Made a Church for Freed Slaves the Hub of the Black Community in Bristol, VA

Relatives and descendants of Charles S. Johnson assembled in chapel of Lee Street Baptist Church.
Relatives and descendants of Charles S. Johnson assembled in chapel of Lee Street Baptist Church.

When Charles Henry Johnson moved from Richmond, VA, to the small-but-booming railroad town of Bristol in 1890, he became the minister of a little wooden church started by 39 freed slaves.

A few pastors had come through since the Anglo-African Church, as it was called, was organized 25 years earlier, but Johnson stuck.

He transformed the church, which, according to a news report from more than 75 years ago, had been “in the midst of some confusion.” It quickly became the hub of Bristol’s black community and, just two years after Johnson arrived, outgrew the small building. A new location birthed a name, which stuck, too: Lee Street Baptist.

“It must have had at least 700 members. You don’t have 700 black people in Bristol now,” current Lee Street Baptist pastor Dr. W.A. Johnson, of no relation, told the Bristol Herald Courier from the church’s current location on West Mary Street. “[It had] a bigger sanctuary than this church. [Charles] Johnson was the one who put it on the map.”

“My aunt would say that you could hear him up and down Main Street in Bristol when he was preaching,” Jeh Vincent Johnson, the grandson of Charles Henry, told the Herald Courier.

In their book about Johnson’s son, Charles Spurgeon Johnson — who left Bristol to become a prominent sociologist, a pioneer in the field of race relations and the first black president of Nashville’s Fisk University — Patrick J. Gilpin and Marybeth Gasman describe Charles Henry as a young and energetic minister. He transformed “the rowdy railroad camp” of Bristol into an “orderly and thriving community,” they wrote. But charisma wasn’t all that set him apart.

In the late 1800s, it was rare for a black man to have a car or college education. Charles Henry, who graduated from Virginia Union University with high honors, had both.

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