It was fitting and proper that Savannah’s First African Baptist Church was recognized last week for its many contributions to the community’s social, religious and cultural life.
This church on Franklin Square is the one of the oldest continuously operating African-American churches in North America. It dates back to 1773 and the organization of a congregation at nearby Brampton Plantation by the Rev. George Leile, an unsung hero who was born a slave but became the first ordained black Baptist preacher in the 13 colonies and made mission trips to plantations up and down the Savannah River.
The first African-American Sunday school in the U.S. was begun at First African Baptist Church, a building that is packed with amazing historical details.
For example, the ceiling of the church is in the design of a “Nine Patch Quilt” which represented that the church was a safe house for slaves. Nine Patch Quilts also served as a map and guide informing people where to go next or what to look out for during their travel.
The holes in the floor are in the shape of an African prayer symbol known as a Congolese cosmogram. In Africa, it also means “Flash of the Spirits” and represents birth, life, death and rebirth.
Beneath the lower auditorium floor is another finished subfloor which was part of the “Underground Railroad” that helped slaves escape to freedom up North. There is four feet of height between both floors.
Last Wednesday, the Georgia Historical Society, the state’s preeminent historical organization, unveiled a Civil Rights Trail historical marker outside the church to remind the public of the significant roles the church and its congregations have played in Savannah’s past. Indeed, this special recognition should inspire current and future generations of people to build a better, more unified community.
The church’s current building was built in 1859, and was constructed of Savannah grey brick by congregants, both free and enslaved. The church has original pews built by slaves, and the stained glass windows date to 1885. There is also a museum inside that holds memorabilia dating back to the 18th century.
Jessie Jackson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are among the noteworthy speakers who have walked the church’s hallowed halls. But just as significant were the church’s countless parishioners who gained strength and perseverance from attending this church and making this community a better place.
Indeed, the church served as the largest gathering place for blacks and whites to meet during the time of segregation. For example, some black students were not allowed to march with their graduating class. Instead, they had separate ceremonies which were held at First African Baptist Church.
“Today is such a special day for our church,” the Rev. Thurmond N. Tillman, pastor of First African Baptist Church, said last Wednesday. “We are very pleased to see a marker that commemorating what we have known for so long about our church.”
And the journey for a historical marker has been a long one.
The marker was the product of a lot of hard work. The required research was completed with the help of the Georgia Historical Society and Christopher Hunter, a doctoral student at Texas A &M University, who should be saluted. He stumbled across the church and decided to keep digging into its past.
“We went through everything from the oral history passed to the published research,” Mr. Hunter said last week.
The toughest challenge may have been determining what to include on the marker and what to leave off.
“There is so much more that could be on that marker and there could be more markers,” the Rev. Tillman said.
The marker is the latest addition to the Georgia Historical Society’s Georgia Civil Rights Trail, which is an initiative focused broadly on the economic, social, political, and cultural history of the Civil Rights Movement, an important part of Georgia’s and this nation’s history.
Indeed, there’s much more to Savannah than pretty buildings and squares and a wonderful waterfront.
The marker outside the church joins an older marker several blocks away at the intersection of Broughton and Abercorn streets outside SCAD’s Jen Library Building. That marker honors the black students led by the NAACP Youth Council that staged sit-ins in 1960 at white-only lunch counters in downtown Savannah.
Three students, Carolyn Quilloin, Ernest Robinson, and Joan Tyson, were arrested in the Azalea Room at the former Levy’s Department Store, now the Jen Library. In response, black civil rights leaders led a boycott of city businesses and voter registration drives that helped elect a moderate, forward-looking mayor, Malcolm Maclean. Mr. Maclean worked with black leaders to repeal local Jim Crow laws and make Savannah the most desegregated city south of the Mason-Dixon line, according to Dr. King .
First African Baptist Church is a registered historic landmark in the National Registry of Historic Landmarks and Places. But a church is more than bricks and mortar.
First African Baptist Church has long been a place of leadership and service. The historical marker is well placed. It’s important for current and future generations in Savannah to know their past, which is why this recognition is so uplifting and inspirational.