learn more about the history of one of Savannah's most historical churches
The Second African Baptist Church is more than one of America’s oldest congregations, it is a historical landmark. In fact, General William Tecumseh Sherman read the Emancipation Proclamation on the steps of the structure in 1864, promising newly freed slaves forty acres and a mule. A decade later, Dr. Martin Luther King recited lines from his “I Have a Dream” sermon on-site before the March on Washington of 1963. The history of the Second African Baptist Church is as striking as it is impressive. The Second African Baptist Church was likewise critical to the development of the eastside Savannah African-American community. If you’re venturing to Savannah’s Green Square, the Second African Baptist Church is not to be missed!
Officially organized in 1778, the First African Baptist Church was then known as the First Colored Church. The First African Baptist Church claims to have congregated as early as 1773. making them the oldest black congregation in the United States of America.
However, this is contested by the Silver Bluff Baptist Church of South Carolina. The Silver Bluff Baptist Church was officially organized in 1774 by David George, a co-founder of the First African Baptist Church.
The First African Baptist Church was founded by David George and George Leile. George Leile, an African American and emancipated slave, is likewise considered the first black Baptist in Georgia. Yet Leile embarked to Jamaica around 1782, leaving the First African Baptist Church to Andrew Bryan. Bryan, like Leile, was formerly enslaved.
By the time of their official organization, the First African Baptist Church had 67 members. Bryan held services regularly in a meetinghouse called “Brampton’s Barn,” which was located three miles west of Savannah. Yet Bryan was only permitted to hold services during daylight hours, and the congregation was restricted to adjoin between sunrise and sunset.
In 1793, Bryan relocated the congregation to Savannah where the First African Baptist Church doubled in size. By 1802, the First African Baptist Church recorded 850 members. The First African Baptist Church soon decided to organize two additional churches from their congregation, culminating in the Second African Baptist Church and the Ogeechee Baptist Church.
The Second African Baptist Church was founded in 1802. Reverend Henry Cunningham, a former slave of Colonel Leroy Hamilton, was chosen as their first pastor. Cunningham, known for his exceptional leadership, served for thirty-one years. The Second African Baptist Church maintained ties with the First African Baptist Church during this time, continuing to exchange pastors from 1812 to 1846. In 1815, for example, Andrew Cox Marshall, the former minister of the First African Baptist Church, led the congregation of the Second African Baptist Church.
The First and Second African Baptist Churches met contention in 1833, however, whenever they encountered doctrinal issues. The First African Baptist Church was being dismissed from the Savannah Baptist Church for “disorderly conduct.”
In response, the Reverend Henry Cunningham wrote that he had “witnessed with sincere regret the many serious difficulties which have for many months existed among some of our colored churches,” which had “tended to destroy our harmony and remove from us the religious privilege which we now so richly enjoy.”
Cunningham concluded that “we have regarded with approbation the efforts our white brethren have made to secure to us the permanent possession of our present enjoyment. We are decidedly of the opinion that great advantage will arise to the colored churches by their being under the protection and supervision of the white church. We do, therefore, respectfully request that the Second African Church may be taken under the care of your body in such manner as shall by you be considered expedient.”
The Second African Baptist Church thereby distanced themselves from the First African Baptist Church, realigning themselves with the Savannah Baptist Church.
An 1888 archive from the First Baptist Church maintained, however, that “there has nearly always existed between these two churches the most friendly feelings,” continuing that “many families of worth and intelligence are equally divided between the First African And Second African churches. To-day the wives of three of the Deacons of the First Church belong to the Second Church. In very many cases the wife and some of the children belong to one church, and the father and some of the children belong to the other. This interchange of families in the two churches form almost a demand for the pastors of the two churches to be on friendly terms.”
In 1889, Savannah’s wealthiest free people of color consolidated their resources to raise the structure, elevating the Second African Baptist Church by nineteen feet. The renovations likewise included the incorporation of a chandelier, stained glass windows, a stone fountain, and cushioned pews.
Yet the Second African Baptist Church was destroyed by fire in 1925, and the former wooden building was replaced by its current structure. The Second African Baptist Church now features a simple interior with stained glass. The current pulpit is original to the church.
In 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman delivered the Emancipation Proclamation on the steps of the Second African Baptist Church. The Field Order, Number 15, committed to the distribution of forty acres and a mule to newly freed slaves.
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. visited the Second African Baptist Church. When offered the pulpit, Dr. King recited lines that would later comprise his “I Have a Dream” speech performed at Washington Square. The event is memorialized annually at the Second African Baptist Church. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, too, that “Savannah is one of the most desegregated cities in the deep south. “ Dr. King would visit Savannah three times in 1964 and was scheduled to speak in Savannah two weeks before his assassination.
Today the Second African Baptist Church is one of the few structures occupying its original site. Reverend C. MeGill Brown became Minister of the Second African Baptist Church in 1998, making Brown the church’s twentieth pastor. The Second African Baptist Church now trains more ministers, black or white, than any other congregation.
Although the Second African Baptist Church does not hold tours, visitors are allowed to attend services. You can find the Second African Baptist Church at 123 Houston Street, east of Savannah’s Historic District. Whether you’re paying respects to Martin Luther King Jr. or simply enjoying Savannah, you’re sure to love the Second African Baptist Church. Stop by to experience this historic congregation!