AUGUSTA, Ga (WJBF)- Augusta is the second oldest city in Georgia, one of the original 13 colonies, and predates the United States itself. That status means there are many places and organizations that date back to the very beginning of our great country.
One of those is Springfield Baptist Church, the oldest African American church in the U.S. In February’s Hometown History Kim Vickers explores more about the church.
Springfield Baptist Church can trace its roots to 1773 on the other side of the Savannah River. It began when an evangelist showed up at a plantation and asked to start a church with the enslaved who lived and worked there.
Wait Palmer was a wandering evangelist who found himself at Silver Bluff Plantation in the late 1700’s. At the time the plantation was owned by George Galphin, who allowed Palmer to organize a church for his slaves. It was known as Silver Bluff Baptist Church.
“He asked George Galphin if he could set up a church and release a mission among some of his slaves. And Galphin let him do it. And that was somewhere in the neighborhood of 1773,” explained Walter Wright, a long time member and Deacon at Springfield Baptist Church.
For 2 to 3 years people worshiped at the church. Erick Montgomery, Executive Director at Historic Augusta, said the world as they knew it changed in 1775.
“There was a lot of turmoil during the Revolution. The British coming, going, and George Galphin, the owner of the plantation died in 1780 and so there was just a lot of flux.”
Montgomery explained that Galphin took the Patriots side during the American Revolution and his death changed the lives of his enslaved people.
“So a lot of the former enslaved from the Galphin plantation were basically freed by the fact that the British got there. So then after the Revolution, then migrated to Augusta and to Savannah,” Montgomery said.
Two enslaved men played major roles in the history of African American Baptist Churches- David George and Jesse Peter– also known as Jesse Galphin.
George, along with another Silver Bluff preacher named George Liele, took a group with him to Savannah where they formed a new church known as First African Baptist Church.
Peter stayed, moving with another group of former enslaved from Silver Bluff to the area of Augusta that was know then as Springfield Community.
“And he was the founder of Springfield Baptist,” said Montgomery.
Peter is said to have worked with Abraham Marshall, son to Daniel, founder of Kiokee Baptist Church in Appling and father of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Together, they ordained Andrew Bryan in Savannah, who then founded First Bryan Baptist Church.
Wright told Kim Vickers that these three churches have a centuries old rivalry over which is truly the oldest African American Southern Baptist Church in America.
“We always say they got here before they got to Savannah. It’s a little bit closer,” Wright laughed.
“They really all have the same root. They all have the same beginnings at Silver Bluff Baptist. And so the folks at Silver Bluff Baptist say we’re actually a lot older than any of those,” Montgomery explained. “But I think that the argument is that Springfield and First Bryan and First African in Savannah have all been in continuous existence.”
Silver Bluff Baptist does still exist, though it became dormant for several years because of the American Revolution.
Move to Springfield
Springfield Baptist Church officially began in 1787 in Springfield Community, located from the Savannah River and Jones Street between 9th and 15th Streets.
“That Springfield property had been bought by a Captain by the name of Leonard Marbury who lived here in Augusta. And he made that into a town called Springfield,” said Montgomery.
For a long time the church’s congregation did not have a building to worship in. Then, in the 1840’s the church bought its first building from St. John’s Methodist church. It was built in 1801 predating Old Kiokee Baptist which was built in 1808.
Wright thinks it must have been a sight to see as the building was moved 6 blocks to Springfield.
“That building was purchased in 1840 from St. John’s Missionary. And it was actually rolled here on logs. That’s, what, 6 blocks from 6th Street to 12th Street. Rolled on logs,” he said.
The “new” brick building was built in 1897 and the old building was repositioned and connected to the new structure.
The Springfield community was settled by freed slaves and even some still enslaved and was a thriving community.
“They were professionals mostly. They were river people, seamstress, blacksmiths. They had all type of different things,” explained Wright.
Now, there is Springfield Village Park on Reynolds Street commemorating the town that was eventually annexed by Augusta. There are plaques with information about the town and the church as well as two sculptures. One is called “And They Went Down Both Into the Water” and the other the “Tower of Aspiration.”
“It actually twists and turns, twists and turns. It represents the struggles of the blacks. So that Tower of Aspiration is important,” Wright said. “And there’s one of the top points in the city. The other sculpture is a baptismal.”
In 1866, after the Civil War and Reconstruction, Springfield Baptist hosted what was known as the Georgia Equal Rights Association.
38 delegates from 11 Georgia Counties met to petition the Georgia Government for certain civil rights, including the right for African Americans to sit on a jury and the right to vote.
One year later, it became the Georgia Republican Party.
“After the Civil War the African Americans, of course, followed the lead of President Lincoln, who was a Republican. And so the Georgia Republican Party was founded at Springfield Baptist Church.”
An Historically Black College owes its roots to Springfield Baptist. Morehouse College began as Augusta Baptist Institute in 1876 in the basement of Springfield Baptist.
“One of the leaders at that time was names William Jefferson White. He established a school called the Augusta Baptist Institute that was at Springfield originally,” explained Montgomery. “But was only here just a few years and then it moved to Atlanta. It was renamed Atlanta Baptist Institute and then eventually became Morehouse College.”
No one knows exactly why the school moved.
Vivian Brown has been a member of Springfield Baptist for 50 years. She said education has long been important to the African American community, and was crucial after the Civil War.
“The whole idea of education was very important to William Jefferson White who, again, was the founder of Morehouse. And he was that person, like the Springfield family we’ll call it, who wanted to– if I know it, I want others to know it.”
Connection to Brown v. BOE
In 1880, Ware High School, the first black public school in Georgia, was founded near Springfield.
It operated for 17 years when the Richmond County Board of Education decided to close it.
Montgomery said it was because there were other African American schools in Augusta– Like the Haines Normal School started by Lucy Laney.
Brown thinks there was another reason.
“School was going along pretty good. As you’re asking for more help as the school was growing, asking for help for classrooms, materials and whatever– the city says no.”
Black leaders appealed the decision at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1899 in the case of Cummings v. School Board of Richmond County, Georgia.
The court ruled in favor of the Board of Education which set the precedent that local BOEs could make decisions in education based on race. This precedent was one of several overturned in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education Topeka in 1954.
“For every young man who graduates from Morehouse. For anybody who has family who grew from Ware, we can say, we had something to do with the decision that changed the nation. We can say that with pride. We can say that,” Brown said with tears in her eyes.
“And that means a lot to you,” Kim said.
“It means a lot. It means a lot,” Brown confirmed.
Springfield Baptist has one other connection to Brown v. Board of Education Topeka.
Reverend James Nabrit was pastor from 1912 to 1921.
His son, James Junior, got his education at Morehouse and Northwestern University Law and later taught at Howard University Law School before becoming president of the institution.
He served as a deputy to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Brown v. BOE.
Still Going Strong
In 1982, Springfield Baptist Church was officially listed on the national Register of Historic Places. The marker can be found outside of the old building on Reynolds Street.
Brown believes that keeping up with history is important for everyone, especially the African American community.
“It’s important that people not forget that. You don’t know where you need to go unless you know where you’ve been,” she said.
Brown and Wright both love their home church and the history that comes with it.
“I’m proud of it. Because I know the struggles that they had to go through,” said Wright.
“We were destined to be here. Because we’re still here. Still here, still trying to do the work that the church has been called to do,” Brown said.
Springfield Baptist Church has weathered 250 years of history– wars, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement and most recently a new Civil Rights movement.
Its members hope it will be around for another 250 more years.
That’s just PART of your Hometown History.
Photojournalist: Will Baker.