On Thursday evening, July 1, 1841 members of the three Baptist churches of Richmond, VA met at the First Baptist Church. The meeting was held to adopt the organization of “The African Baptist Church of Richmond”. However, there were several stipulations. The stipulations were these:
Born a slave in 1815, Henry Brown would not let suppression, bigotry or the law at that time stop him for attaining what he knew was his birthright- freedom. Henry Brown was born a slave on a Louisa County plantation. He, like thousands of others, was separated from his family and brought to Richmond Virginia in 1830. There he joined the First Baptist Church under the pastorate of Rev. Robert Ryland, who Brown’s says took special delight in preaching from Ephesians where St. Paul says “servants be obedient to them that are your masters… submit to them with fear and trembling.” Brown married and had three children, but in 1848 his wife and children were taken away and sold to a plantation owner in North Carolina. This was the final straw that set into motion a plan for freedom. In 1849, devastated by the separation of his wife and children, Brown determined to escape to freedom. Aided by a sympathetic, white shoemaker, Henry Brown, who stood about 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed about 200lbs, loaded himself into a wooden crate labeled “This Side Up” and was mailed to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he found his freedom. From that day on Henry Brown was known as Henry “Box” Brown.
On July 7, 1952, the Relocation Committee of the First African Baptist Church, made up of Trustees, Deacons and representatives of each of the church auxiliaries, gave this report to the congregation:
After careful research and considerations about such factors as (1.) the availability of suitable church sites throughout the city, (2.) the feasibility of purchasing an already existing church edifice, and (3.) some possible means of financing another church edifice, the Relocation Committee makes the following recommendations:
On February 22, 1953 the congregation voted to relocate after hearing the recommendations from the Trustee Board. The recommendations were to offer the existing building on 14th and Broad Sts. to the Medical College to Virginia for $60,000.00 and to negotiate with the Barton Heights Baptist Church for the purchase of their building at a price not exceed $80,000.00. The Barton Heights Church was acquired for the sum of $77,500.
In 1867, Dr. James H. Holmes became the first black pastor of the church. He served for 32 years. Under his pastorate 5,800 persons were baptized, the old church was torn down and the basement of the new church was dedicated in October 1877. On November 26, 1900 a call meeting was held to prepare for the funeral of the first African American minister of the First African Baptist Church- the Rev. James Holmes. The church was draped in black for 30 days. There was to be no entertainment in the church for 30 days. The body was brought to the church for public viewing from 9am to 12 noon. A guard of honor to superintend the viewing of the body was appointed. 8 pews in the middle aisle were reserved for white and colored ministers. 5 pews to the left were reserved for deacons. The church furnished 4 carriages for the pallbearers, 5 carriages for the deacons, and 3 carriages for the choir. The Rev. Dr. A. Binga, Jr. performed the funeral sermon- “A Great Man In Israel Has Fallen.” The body was interred in plot 81 of Ham’s Cemetery on N. St. James Street.
Things were not always smooth sailing at First African Baptist Church. On June 3, 1901, after the death of their beloved pastor Rev. James Holmes, there was a vote for the next pastor. The candidates were the Rev. A. W. Pegues, the Rev. W. T. Johnson, and the Rev. W. H. Brooks. After much debate and spokesmen for each of the candidates were heard Rev. Johnson carried the vote. On motion Rev. W. T. Johnson was unanimously called to the pulpit. However, John Mitchell member of the church and editor of a Richmond newspaper did not agree with the vote. On July 15, 1901 there was a call meeting to consider the June 6th publication of a private letter of Rev. Johnson to the church and the business of the church in the Richmond Planet. On July 15th, after much discussion, a motion was made to withdraw the right hand of fellowship to John Mitchell. On Aug. 5, 1901 a letter of acceptance for the pastorate of the First African Baptist Church received and read from Rev. W. T Johnson.
Lott Carey was born a slave on the plantation of William A. Christian in Charles City County, VA about four years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. On “one Lord’s Day in 1807” as he sat in the gallery of the First Baptist Church, he was converted and baptized. Through studying the bible and attending church on a regular basis, Lott was soon called to preach the gospel of the Lord. After listening to Lott as an exhorter of the “coloured” brethren of the First Baptist Church of Richmond, those in charge licensed him to preach the gospel. . In 1821 Lott Carey and his family, along with Colin Teague and his family, Joseph Langford and his wife, and Hilary Teague were organized into a church and Carey was elected pastor. On January 23, 1821, Carey and his church boarded the ship “Nautilus” carrying 28 other colonists and left Norfolk, VA heading for Sierra Leone, West Africa. Upon arrival, the colonists built their church in Monrovia and by 1823 the little church had a thriving Sunday school and 6 converts. By the end of his final years in Africa, the Rev. Lott Carey had served as pastor of his church, doctor of body and soul, president of the missionary society formed in Africa, Government Inspector of the colony and in 1826 he was elected Vice-agent of the colony. In November 1828, the natives of the area robbed a factory belonging to the colony just north of Monrovia. Satisfaction was demanded by the colonists and refused. Carey prepared to defend the rights of the colonists and called out a militia. On November 8, 1828 as cartridges were being made in an old agency house, a candle was upset and the entire ammunition exploded. Eight people died on the spot and six of the colonists survived until the next day. Rev. Carey died on November 10, 1828. Lott Carey was the first American Baptist missionary in Africa and the first representative of a purely Negro missionary organization to labor beyond the limits of the United States.
On June 2, 1904 between the hours of 9:30 and 10:00 pm, it was discovered that fire was about to destroy the First African Baptist Church on the corner of Broad and College Sts. After about an hour and a half the fire was extinguished. It is reported that Rev. W. T. Johnson said, “I want to thank God that this house of worship was spared to us. I would, were the organist of the church here, hold a service of Thanksgiving at this time.” One of the firemen present at the fire was president of the Fire Board. He was also an accomplished organist. He rendered a concert on the congregation’s new Harrison’s Opus 78 Organ on the spot. The Opus 78 remained in use by the church until the congregation relocated to Barton Heights in 1956. However, the organ stayed in the old church building. With the sale of the building to the Medical College and the creation of office spaces on the first floor of the church, someone understanding the historical significance and antique value of the organ, made off with the majority of the organ’s pipes. The remains of the organ were sold to Harbor View Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina. It was removed from the old First African Baptist Church in the summer of 1980.
On December 26, 1811, the Richmond Baptist Church was again catapulted into prominence. There was a play being performed at the Richmond Theatre located on Broad St. one block away from the church. There were about 600 persons in attendance, including 50 black persons relegated to sit in the balcony. Fire broke out during the performance of the play and chaos and pandemonium ensued. Out of this horror emerged the legendary hero, Gilbert Hunt. Hunt, a blacksmith by trade, was a member of the Richmond Baptist Church. When his employer, Mrs. George Mayo, heard of the fire, she begged Hunt to try to rescue her daughter. Hunt hurried to the scene and without thought of possible injury to himself, positioned himself under a window and caught body after body as persons jumped out of the theater. Hunt saved many lives that day and for his heroism a plaque commemorating his heroism can still be found on Broad St. in front of the Monumental Episcopal Church which is built on the site of the Richmond Theatre. Gilbert Hunt continued his membership with the Baptist Church and became one of the first deacons of the First African Baptist Church.