NOTE: This book contains many biographies as well as information on churches of early African American Baptists leaders.
THE FIRST COLORED BAPTIST CHURCH
The first colored Baptist Church was organized in the basement of the white Baptist Church (First Baptist Church) just after the close of the war. The corner stone of their present building on Columbus street was laid in 1867. Their first pastor was the late Rev. Nathan Ashby, who, prior to the war, had preached to the colored membership on Sundays in the afternoon, in the basement of the white church. Mr. Ashby being stricken down by paralysis, closed his pastorate in 1870. Under his pastorate this church issued the call for the first session of the State Convention in 1868; hence this church is the source—the mother—of our Convention.
For a few months, the Rev. J. W. Stevens supplied the pulpit.
In 1871 the late Rev. James H. Foster was called to the pastoral office, which he served for the space of twenty years, leaving it only to answer the summons of his Master to appear in purer and higher spheres. Under his administration, the church increased its membership from a few hundred to several thousand. He expended some $10,000 or $12,000 on the present edifice. Under his pastorate, the Foreign Mission Convention was organized in 1880.
After Mr. Foster’s death, December 1, 1891, Rev. A. J. Stokes, then pastor at Fernandina, Fla., was called to their pulpit, and now serves with great success, having added within the last two months about 500 by baptism. So far, his success is a wonder to the people of Montgomery. The special item under his administration is the organization of the young people for training and work.
Bro. Cyrus Hale was well read
Old Brother Boykin (about 85 years old) in speaking of the work about Montgomery, said: “The first colored preacher I saw after coming from Charleston, was Bro. Cyrus Hale. He came from South Carolina. He was an old man when I first met him. He was well read, was a good preacher, and the white people ‘lowed him to go anywhere there was a call for him. He was the father of the work in this section. Following him, was Bro. Jacob Belser, and then came Bro. Nathan Ashby. Brother Hale must have been ordained, for he used to baptize in slavery time.
While we were worshiping in the white church, we had some ‘sistant deacons—Bros. Fayette Vaudeville, Jerry Fye, Peter Miles and Abe Blackshear.”
A balloon flew over the plantation
Rev. William Jenkins relates the following: “I was born in Montgomery in 1835, and have been here every since. I began to speak in public in 1852, and continued to speak in the city and on neighboring plantations all the while. I was allowed to read the Bible, but I had rather been caught with a hog than with a newspaper; because, for the hog, I was likely to get a whipping; but for the newspaper, I might get a hanging. And there was some faith them times.
On a plantation out here where I used to preach, there was a balloon coming down one day. The overseer and the people saw it, and as that was a new thing with them, it frightened them, and everybody fled except one brother, who, on seeing the man in the balloon, and believing that it was the Lord, ran towards the descending balloon, exclaiming as he looked up: ‘Lord, I’s been looking for you for so long a time, and now you’s come at last!’ The balloon man said: ‘Go away, boy; I’m nothing but a man.'”
Montgomery is no longer what it was when, thirty years ago, Bro. Ashby spoke in the afternoon in the basement of the white church. Six colored Baptist churches now worship within the city and suburbs of Montgomery. The edifice of Dexter Avenue Church, standing near the first capital of the ex-Confederacy, is one of the most substantial and neat brick structures in the city, and the congregation which worships therein are people of money and refinement. Messrs. H. A. Loveless, the coal dealer, William Watkins, the contractor, and Charles Steers, the upholsterer, are owners and managers of large affairs, involving thousands of dollars.
Own real estate
The colored people of this city own many hundred thousand dollars in real estate. Mr. Billingslea, the barber, is said to own $300,000. Dr. Dorsett runs a successful drug business in one of the lower departments of a two-story brick building owned by himself. The widow of the late Hon. James Hale has built and is maintaining an infirmary for the sick poor people of her race.
Contrast this state of things with thirty years ago, when the colored people, like “dumb driven cattle” before hound and lash, wended their way in the “death march ” of slavery, and ask if the negro of to-day is the negro of thirty years years ago. There is on Dexter avenue, in the city of Montgomery, an old brick building wherein the “negro trader” used to pen his slaves to await his purchasers. Herein the writer organized the Dexter Avenue Church. Compare the occupants of the slave pen with the audience in Dexter Avenue Church.
This church is a secession from the Columbus Street Church, occurring in the latter part of the year 1877. Its first meeting, with a view to organization, took place in the parlor of Mr. Samuel Phillips. The chief persons in the constitutional membership were Messrs. Samuel Phillips, John Phillips, Alfred Thomas (the father of Mrs. S. H. Wright), C. Sterrs, William Watkins and IT. A. Loveless. The meeting for the recognition of the church was held in a hall on Dexter avenue, January, 1878, which in former days had been used as a slave trader’s pen. Dr. J. B. Hawthorne, pastor of the First Church (White), with his deacons, represented the white brethren, and Rev. J. A. Foster, pastor of the Columbus Street Church, represented his church.
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church ca. 1896, pastor Rev. R. T. Pollard (The Cyclopedia of the Colored Baptists of Alabama – Their Leaders and Their Work copyright 1896 )
The writer was the first pastor, but owing to embarrassments which soon followed, he did not remain long in charge of the work. Revs. J. W. Stevens, F. McDonald, J. C. Curry, A. F. Owens, T. Fryerson, A. N. McEwen, Dr. Langridge, and others followed in the pastoral charge. The progress of the church was rather slow till the time of Mr. McEwen, under whom their present beautiful building was erected. The present pastor, Rev. R. T. Pollard, seems to be appointed the task of leading not so much on lines of material development as in lines of spiritual growth. Many other good and pious persons have been added to their number, so that no church in the State can now boast of a people more thrifty, aspiring and refined.
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