For many years, First African traced its origin to 1788. Now it says it was founded in 1777, based on a vague reference to that date in a letter written by its founder, George Liele. But the church does not have a copy of the letter, which it claims to have discovered in the early 1980s.
First African recognizes Silver Bluff as the first black church, Tillman says, but disagrees that Springfield is entitled to its legacy. When he arrived at First African in 1982, his congregation was already formulating plans to celebrate its bicentennial year in 1988. Reluctant to alter those plans, he said nothing about the 1777 date.
"You have a lot of members waiting to celebrate 200 years and then this new young minister comes in and says, 'Oh you missed that, you should've done that in '77.' They'd say, 'No we haven't' -- they'd just get a new pastor," Tillman says.
So First African threw itself a 200th anniversary party on Jan. 20, 1988 -- and then held a 211th birthday party in December of the same year. "We got back on track," Tillman explains.
The historic sleight of hand amuses Cashin: "It's based on a mistake."
He says Liele was a slave who was standing beside his master when the man was killed in 1779, so he could not have been in Savannah organizing a church two years earlier.
No matter how many historical hairs the churches split, a larger sense of accomplishment is at work in Springfield's people. Even Cashin -- "neither black nor Baptist," as he wrote in his book -- feels it.
"It can say to black people, 'We were here at the beginning. This is our town as well as anyone else's. We can survive,' " the historian says. "There is something good about history; history isn't just about pain and tragedy, it's also a chronicle of triumph."
Such feelings are repeated by Dorothy Cummings, a part of Springfield since her birth in the parsonage in 1923 while her father was pastor. To be at Springfield every seventh day, greeting friends and kneeling before God and the ghosts of members past, is the greatest victory, she says.
"That it's been there that long and that it's still going is what I think is most important," Cummings says. "And we're still sticking it out."
Pub Date: 2/08/98