The History of the First African Baptist Church
The First African Baptist Church was organized by Rev. Prince Murrell, who was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1817. His mother was a descendent of a Congo Prince, and his father was the son of an Englishman.
In 1838, Rev. Murrell’s mother with seven children moved to Tuscaloosa. His aspiration for liberty, his yearning for the mastery of letters and books, his tact and perseverance in organizing the black Baptists, and success in accumulating property marked him as extraordinary.
Upon their arrival in Tuscaloosa, the Murrells began attending the all white First Baptist Church. Segregated church services were held in a separate part of the church and at different hours.
In 1845, seventy-one (71) White people and 65 Negroes attended the First Baptist Church, Tuscaloosa. The record shows and a study indicated that Negroes continued to attend in large numbers after the Civil War.
In 1865, a Negro group requested severing the loose connection with the white church and formation of formation of their own church. It was understood that if the Negro body could separate, Prince Murrell would be ordained to become their pastor. The request was denied. On July 2, 1866, another request was presented and it was voted that all who wanted to withdraw should request a letter.
In August 1866 at a business meeting it was reported that most of the Negroes felt that they did not need such a letter and under the leadership of Prince Murrell, In November 1866, the Negroes began meeting separately. Rev. Murrell led all 160 members with the exception of 16 into the organization of the African Baptist Church.
Rev. Murrell opened the first Sunday School for Negroes in Tuscaloosa the first Sunday in December 1866. He preached and also taught Sunday School. In many ways he was a remarkable man. Whites held him in high esteem. Selma University was organized in January 1878 at a state convention meeting held at First African and Rev. Murrell was instrumental in its establishment.
The first sites of worship for the newly organized church were in member’s homes. Hood’s Mill and Barrs’ Store were other places of worship. The first permanent place of worship was a building constructed at Riverhill (presently 4th Street and 24th Avenue). Rev. Murrell served without an assistant in 1885. His health failed and he advised the Board of Deacons to appoint a younger man as his assistant. The Board of Deacons appointed Rev. James Mason to assist Rev. Murrell.
Since the pastorate of Rev. Murrell this church has been blessed with a succession of dedicated, scholarly Christian men who have contributed much to the church’s spirituality, financial stability, and growth in membership.
Rev. James Mason, a gifted scholarly man was elected to succeed Rev. Murrell. He remodeled the church at Riverhill, installed a pool, and purchased the priceless bell that is presently in the bell tower. Rev. Mason remained pastor until 1891 when he was called to a church in Chicago, Illinois.
Rev. J.S. Steinback succeeded Rev. Mason and remained only a short time. He was succeeded by a young, polished, scholar, Rev. W.C. Bradford, who was interested in young people. He was called to a larger church after a short pastorate and was succeeded by Rev. E. B. Young. In 1897, Rev. Bradford was recalled. His second pastorate was also brief.
In 1900, Rev. J. H. Smith, a gifted preacher and evangelist was called. Under his leadership, the church experienced remarkable growth and spiritual development to the extent that land was purchased and the current beautiful brick church was constructed at a cost of $50,000. Mr. Benjamin Barnes, a graduate of Tuskegee Institute, a deacon, and church organist, along with other deacons and trustees designed the edifice to be a replica of the chapel at Tuskegee Institute.
In 1914, Rev. Smith was succeeded by Dr. I. T. Simpson, a dynamic leader who rapidly paid off the debt of $19,000, put a slate roof on the church, and purchased beautiful solid oak pews at a cost of $2,500. After ten years, Rev. Simpson was followed by Rev. R. W. Coleman, a graduate of McGill University in Canada.
During Rev. Smith’s pastorate, the first Junior Choir of the church was organized and the choir stand on the left of the altar was constructed. A parsonage was purchased, the first since 1900.
In 1929, Rev. Coleman was succeeded by Rev. E. H. Edwards, a dedicated Christian gentleman whose pastorate lasted only two years. Rev. John Jeffries was called to succeed Rev. Edwards. After a brief period, he resigned and was succeeded by Rev. Roland Smith.
Rev. Roland Smith was a dynamic minister. During his pastorate a new lighting and heating system was installed, racks were placed on the backs of pews, and many progressive reforms were initiated. After five years, Rev. Roland Smith resigned and Rev. J. H. Smith was recalled after an absence of many years. Due to his age and failing health, his pastorate was not effective. He resigned and was succeeded by Rev. F. D. Andrews.
During Rev. Andrews’ tenure an annex to the church was constructed. Also, the church celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary. Rev. Andrews was given a leave of absence to study at Howard University School of Religion, and Rev. J. H. Spencer served as interim pastor. Rev. Andrews returned, but remained for only two years. He resigned and moved to Chicago, Illinois. The Andrews’ era ended in 1952 with the installation of Rev. W. B. Shealey, an able administrator and gift religious leader.
During Rev. Shealey’s administration, the church continued to prosper with the establishment of a central treasury system which led to the elimination of some special days. His research on the History of First African led him to discover its official name. He reminded members in a business meeting held October 1, 1952, that the official name of the church in the early 1950s was African Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa, Inc. which later became First African Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa, Inc. His great management and organizational skills led to the acquisition of three lots adjacent to the church property. Ultimately a $12,000 church renovation project was completed. The mortgage on money borrowed for these projects were retired under his pastorate.
Rev. Shealey strongly opposed members soliciting money from outsiders and fundraising projects for operation of the church. He stated that it was the members’ responsibility to pay for the operation of the church and if the members did not do that, then the church should be closed. He also discouraged the members from having an Appreciated Day or Anniversary celebration for him.
After four years, Rev. Grady Bennett Jr. succeeded Rev. Shealey. During his administration a new outreach ministry, The Moses L. Prewitt Memorial Kindergarten was founded in 1960 by Mrs. Eloise Prewitt and was named for her late husband. Mrs. Prewitt served as the kindergarten’s first director from 1960 to 1963. The church was renovated at a cost of $17,000. The mortgage was paid and the church was free of debt when he accepted the call to a church in Flint, Michigan. Rev. Elbert Sparks served as interim pastor.
In August 1963, Rev. T. Y. Rogers Jr. was called to the pastorate of the church at age 28. At his installation program, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the sermon. During his pastorate a new parsonage was completed, a house adjacent to the property on Tenth Street was acquired; a new piano was purchased, as well as new hymnals. A communion table with cross and candles was donated to the church by Mrs. Ruth E. Bolden in memory of her husband, the late Mr. Robert Cummings. Rev. Rogers organized the T. Y. Rogers Gospel Choir and a Chapel Choir. The second phase of the education building was completed. It consisted of restrooms, lounge, offices, classroom space, and a nursery for small children. Additionally, a new central heating and air conditioning system was installed for the first time.
The year of 1964 was a turning point in the history of the church and the community. Rev. Rogers was a dynamic leader. He led the Civil Rights Movement in Tuscaloosa and organized The Tuscaloosa Citizens for Action Committee. All Civil Rights meetings were held in this church. The abilities and influences of Rev. Rogers helped to hasten the day when civil rights for African Americans became a reality. On March 24, 1971, Rev. Rogers met an untimely death in an automobile accident in Atlanta, Georgia.
Rev. J. C. Brown served as interim pastor until February 1972, when Rev. Donald Thompson was called. After only nine months, Rev. Thompson resigned.
Rev. William E. Pitts was called in July 1973 to become the 19th pastor of First African Baptist Church, beginning his pastorate in September of that year. During his administration many improvements were made. The bell in the tower was restored. Plexiglas was installed to protect the stained glass windows and new carpet was put in the sanctuary. The pews were restored to the original finish; a new baptizing pool was donated to the church in memory of the late Miss Jessie A. Freeman by her sister, Ida Freeman Jenkins. A new Allen organ was purchased with two thirds of the total cost, $17,000 being contributed by Deacon William T. Bobo in member of his wife, the late Mrs. Olena K. Bobo. A parking lot was constructed and a Historical Marker was acquired for the church and installed on Sunday, February 1, 1976. First African Baptist Church was listed in the distinguished publication entitled The National Register of Historical Places. During Rev. Pitts’ administration, our involvement in the annual Thanksgiving worship service with the five downtown churches was revived. His pastorate was distinguished by the initiation of the bus and jail ministries.
A detailed history of First African Baptist Church was published in book format in 1986. The 136-page book, History of the First African Baptist Church 1866-1966 includes copies of 32 official documents of the church and 62 pictures of individuals who were an integral part of the church’s history. In addition, in cooperation with the First Baptist Church, First Methodist Church, First Presbyterian, and Christ Episcopal Church; First African helped sponsor the Community Soup Bowl. After serving over 16 years, Rev. Pitts retired April 1, 1990 leaving the church debt free.
Rev. Richard D. Adams and Rev. Walter Hawkins Jr. served as interim pastors until December 1990, when Dr. James O. Ellis was called to be the 20th pastor of First African Baptist Church.
Another highly trained, experienced, and God sent gospel preacher, Rev. Ellis brought credentials that were exceptional. Within the first two years of Rev. Ellis’ administration, a major renovation of the exterior of the church, including the installation of glass doors across the front entrance was completed at a cost of $60,000. In addition, property across Bryant Drive was acquired and cleared for parking at a cost of $48,000. Both projects were paid in cash with funds raised during the first two years of Pastor Ellis’ administration.
In 1992 and 1993, Rev. Ellis coordinated the organization of the Maude L. Whatley Scholarship Fund with the initial contribution given by Miss Whatley’s sister, Ms. Arnette Burnwell. As a humanitarian, Rev. Ellis’ efforts have been noteworthy. He initiated the process to rename 27th Avenue in honor of former pastor and civil rights pioneer, Rev. T. Y. Rogers Jr. Rev. Ellis began holding weekly Bible study classes, organized the Mass Choir, reorganized the Children’s Choir, and purchased new robes for both the Mass and Youth Choirs. A tape ministry program was begun in 1993 with initial funding by Mrs. Ida Hobson in memory of her husband, Rev. Henry L. Hobson.
In 1995, a new 15 passenger van for the church was purchased and paid in full. In October 1995, the church hosted the first city-wide interracial, interdenominational “Prayer Concert” with a filled sanctuary. The event was held on a Saturday night with a balanced attendance both black and white, as well as representation from all major Christian fellowships.
On April 13, 1997, a ground-breaking ceremony began construction of Phase 1 of a three phase building project. The completion of Phase 1, which includes offices, classrooms, communion room, first aid room, restrooms, and kitchen, was celebrated as part of the 132nd church anniversary. Also, in 1997, the church facility became the site for an extension program for Birmingham Theological Seminary, serving students within a hundred mile radius.
During the year of 1998, more property was acquired across Bryant Drive. The congregation under the leadership of Rev. Ellis, has developed a program to make available to every high school graduating senior who is a First African Baptist Church member and pursues further academic or technical study, a generous financial award is given. In 1999, the church established a senior adult ministry.
Since the beginning of the millennium the church continues to prosper under God’s direction and Rev. Ellis’s leadership. The church scholarship program has expanded to provide financial assistance to every high school graduating senior (church member who meet requirements) for a maximum of 4 years of higher education, new robes were purchased for the Mass Choir, and the Youth Choir was re-established and re-organized.
On November 6, 2004, Rev. James O. Ellis was called to his heavenly home. Rev. James C. Carter, a spiritual leader, with many years of experience in the ministry was called to serve as First African’s interim pastor. The congregation under his leadership continues to move forward.
During the year 2005 a new roof was installed on the church and two heating and cooling systems were purchased. The church properties on Bryant Drive and College Hill were renovated.
The educational building was dedicated and names “The James O. Ellis Educational Building. In memory of Rev. James O. Ellis the highlight of the dedication was the establishing of an educational scholarship by Mrs. Audrey Ellis and daughter Keira Ellis.
On June 22, 2008, Rev. Richard L. Morgan was installed as the 22nd Pastor. Under his leadership, the church has added more than 103 new members to its roll. An additional Bible Study class has been started on Monday evenings and an 8:00 a.m. Worship Service was started June of 2008. The first church leadership conference was held in August 2009 and in April 2010, the first Seed Conference took place.
A new Hammond Organ with Leslie Speakers, Baby Grand Piano, new recording audio & video system with a sound booth was purchased. Also installed is a new security system and new office equipment, including a new copier, and furniture have been purchased. New landscaping and masonry at rear entrance of the church along with new rear glass entry doors.
We continue to work while it is day, for when the night comes…