Congregation praying for historic church

Philadelphia's First African Baptist was founded in 1809

May 17, 2001|By Linda K. Harris | Linda K. Harris,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - In the 1950s, when the bells of the historic First African Baptist Church rang 96 feet above this corner in South Philadelphia, the neighborhood was filled with prosperous African-Americans, and the church itself, 2,000 members strong, would crowd to overflowing on Sundays.

Mabel R. Taylor, 96, is the oldest of the 100 or so faithful who remain. She remembers well the joy of watching the sun glint through the many stained-glass windows, and she recalls the glory of the chimes.

"I have really enjoyed that church," said Taylor, who lives in Germantown. "Everybody looked nice. We used to have a lot of professional people who belonged there."

But these days, the church, founded in 1809 by freed slaves from Virginia, is struggling mightily to survive and to maintain the building.

The stone bell tower that reached to the heavens began to weaken, thanks to acts of God - lightning struck in the 1950s, and Hurricane Floyd passed through in 1999.

Damaged beyond repair, the tower is being rebuilt, at a cost of $200,000. The 75 people who show up on Sundays, praying for a new pastor and more congregants, have moved from the sanctuary with heavy oak pews with room for 1,000 to a smaller Sunday school area where folding chairs suffice.

Passers-by cannot help but notice the construction, the banging and clanging. Nor can they miss the state historical marker, installed in 1991 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, that stands in front of the church, first located at Cherry Street before it moved in 1906 to the Gothic Revival sanctuary at 16th and Christian streets.

Beginnings

The sign reads: "First African Baptist Church. Founded in 1809 as one of the first black Baptist churches in America. Later two members sold themselves into slavery to free a slave to serve as pastor."

The pastor was James Burrows, who served the church from 1832 to 1844. He was born a slave and was living in Northampton County, Va., according to the official history of the church, recounted in a book written by the late Charles H. Brooks.

"He felt that he was called to preach, but his master refused to allow him the privilege," Brooks wrote. "He then persuaded his master to permit him to come to Philadelphia to earn money to purchase his freedom."

Philadelphia cousins Samuel and John Bivins traveled to Virginia to take Burrows' place in bondage. Meanwhile, Burrows earned money to fulfill his promise that he would buy the cousins out of captivity, which he did.

Other notable people have stood in the church's pulpit, including the Rev. William A. Harrod, whom Taylor remembers, and the Rev. Charles S. Lee, who grew up in the church when Harrod was its leader.

"Reverend Lee was a dynamic speaker and a man everyone wanted to follow," Taylor recalled. Her husband's sister, Edith, was married to Lee.

Lee guided the church through the 1950s and the turbulent 1960s until his death in 1974. Edith Lee was a schoolteacher. His daughter, Andrea Lee, was one of the first African-American students to attend the exclusive Baldwin School. She later graduated from Harvard and is a writer whose stories appear regularly in the New Yorker.

Tanner Duckery, Philadelphia's first black district superintendent, was a member, as was Grace Sullivan, until she married the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, the celebrated former leader of Zion Baptist Church.

Heyday long past

But the heyday of Christian Street and the church is long past. The last pastor, the Rev. Elvis L. Turner, left in July, and a replacement hasn't yet been found.

Verna Simpkins, 76, a retired school counselor and chairman of the board of trustees, says the members who remain are committed to keeping the congregation alive and the landmark in good repair. The church raised $200,000 last year with a capital drive and a small-business loan for the repair of the bell tower.

In 1994, the church came up with $36,000 for a new roof. Last summer, they refinished the large oak doors with cast-iron fittings. Still other repairs await.

"Old churches are very expensive," Simpkins said. "We have a lot of work to be done."

The original idea last fall was to put metal rods in the bell tower to hold it together, a much cheaper prospect. But when the masons began the work, they realized that the walls were too weak and that a new tower would have to be built, said James Flint, 56, one of the younger church members and a trustee who serves as chairman of the property committee.

The board decided to rebuild the tower 21 feet lower than it stood before. And whether the three giant brass bells will be returned to the tower is still up in the air.

"That's what we're trying to decide - how to handle the bells," Flint said.

Michael Stern, an architect with the Foundation for Architecture, worked with the church when he was associated with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

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