Savannah's black history comes alive in African Baptist Church


You won't find Harry B. James listed among the guides at Savannah's Visitors and Convention Bureau. But no one relates Savannah's black history with more verve than this 60-something, retired U.S. mailman and longtime deacon of the city's First African Baptist church, the oldest black Baptist church in North America.

The gray, stuccoed, brick church stands on Montgomery Street, overlooking the west side of Franklin Square, one of the 24 squares envisioned by Savannah's founder, James Edward Oglethorpe, in 1733. The congregation of the church traces its origins back to 1773 when George Leile, a slave, was introduced by his owner to the teachings of the Baptist church, which was just gaining a toehold in the Colonies. Leile was ordained in 1775 and given absolute freedom to travel up and down the Savannah River, preaching at plantations to black and white alike.

His first permanent congregation was formed at one of the plantations in 1788. It was this congregation that provides the basis for the church's claim to being the oldest black Baptist church in North America. But it wasn't until 1857 that the church members, who called themselves the First African Baptist Church, began construction of the handsomely proportioned building we see today. The story of how the church was built never fails to move Harry James to impassioned eloquence.

"You have to remember," he tells his audience, "that this church was built by black men and women who worked a 16-hour day for their owners before coming here and laboring at night by the bonfires. The bricks were made on the site and carried by the women in their aprons to the men. Many worked through the night and went back to the fields at sunup." It took four years to complete construction.

In those years before emancipation, it was illegal to teach a slave how to read or write. Yet the building was designed entirely by blacks for whom any kind of formal architectural instruction was strictly forbidden. In addition to being the oldest black Baptist church in the United States, it also claims to be the first brick structure in Georgia owned and built by blacks. Entrance to the church is by a double staircase that leads up to double doors, a design found in many of Savannah's 18th- and 19th-century buildings. Inside the lofty nave, the slightly curved oak pews accommodate 1,600 people, and, as Mr. James delights to point out, there is not one obstructed seat in the whole church. Balconies on both sides run the full length of the nave. All the woodwork is hand-carved, and visitors are urged to notice the faint carvings on the ends of the balcony pews, some in zigzags, others in odd formations of circles and triangles. These are said to be the insignia of West African tribes from whom the laborers were descended. Overhead, the delicately wrought brass lighting fixtures are originals, converted from gas to electricity. The pipe organ was installed in 1888, and the church pamphlet notes that it is the oldest such organ still in use in the state of Georgia.

After admiring the chancel with its stained-glass windows and its large baptismal pool -- "It takes three hours to fill," says Mr. James proudly -- visitors are invited to follow the deacon downstairs. On the lower level, one small room serves as a museum for the church. Here records of its venerable past are preserved, along with framed black-and-white portraits of all 17 presiding ministers, up to and including Mr. Thurmond M. Tillman, who at the age of 38 has presided as the church's pastor for the last 12 years.

Treasured artifacts

In 1988, when the church celebrated its bicentennial, a flurry of nationwide attention yielded a thick scrapbook of clippings. Glass-fronted cases display some of the treasures of the church -- chalices, plaques and two silver communion trays with the inscription, "Presented to the First coloured Baptist Church by the female members, September 16, 1814."

The lower floor serves the church as an all-purpose meeting room, ideal for church socials, Sunday school and choir practice. No longer in use, a white lectern decorated with gold paint stands against one wall. This is the original lectern, made, says Mr. James, "of gopher wood, same wood as Noah used to build his ark."

Not many visitors notice the random, diamond-shaped pattern of half-inch holes drilled in the floor throughout the room. Mr. James, however, points them out.

"And what purpose do you suppose they served?" he asks. It's not often that anyone comes up with the right answer. For there is nothing other than those holes to betray the fact that there is another floor, four feet below the floor on which you stand, and in that dark, impossibly cramped space, runaway slaves were hidden. At one time, it is thought, a tunnel joined their hiding place to the river front, less than a mile away. Just how many slaves were hidden between the floors, no one can say. For obvious reasons, no written records were kept. But the thought of being confined under such conditions, unable to cough, laugh or speak aloud, fearful of making the slightest sound lest one's presence be detected, strains even the most vivid imagination.

Visitors are always welcome at church services, and if they linger for the social hour that follows the Sunday morning service, they can count on a warm reception by the parishioners.

On the subject of race relations, at least as far as Savannah is concerned, Mr. James is unabashedly upbeat. Savannah, he will tell you, didn't have to wait for the Federal government to enforce integration. While lunch counters in other cities were closing down rather than admit blacks, the lunch counters in Savannah voluntarily opened their doors to all. Nor was it exceptional in Savannah to find double-family homes shared by black and white families. And Savannah is proud of the fact that among Southern cities, it was second only to Miami in the hiring of black police officers.

"Folks 'round here don't hold with beating up on people, hitting them with clubs and all that kind of thing. That's not Savannah's way."

Also worth a visit is the Black Soldier's Exhibit in the Savannah Visitors Center. Its exhibits highlight the valor and service of

178,895 black men who fought in the Civil War.

IF YOU GO . . .

For more information about First African Baptist Church activities and services, call the church secretary, Pearl Holmes, at (912) 233-6597.

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