First African Baptist Church

301 College St Richmond

From Civil War to Civil Rights/First African Baptist Church
American Civil War Museum
Written By American Civil War Museum

The mission of The American Civil War Museum is to be the preeminent center for the exploration of the American Civil War and its legacies from multiple perspectives: Union and Confederate, enslaved and free African Americans, soldiers and civilians.

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A Space to Worship in Peace

This church was constructed in 1876 after the original building was destroyed. Initially, a congregation of whites and blacks worshiped here. However, in 1841, after the African American congregation petitioned to have their own church, the building was sold to the black congregation for $3,500 plus interest and the white congregation moved up the street a few blocks. As a way of making money the church was rented out for concerts, entertainments, and political events. Of course, all of these events were segregated. By law the African American congregation was required to have a white minister. Robert Ryland, the first president of Richmond College was chosen; he would serve until 1865. Ryland was a slaveholder and a member of the American Colonization Society, however, he saw the church as an educational and moral mission. Although he often preached from Ephesians where Paul instructed “servants be obedient to them that are your masters,” he was lenient in the management of the church, allowing the black deacons to pray and preach from their pews. With the fall of Richmond, things changed for the black congregation. Four days after the Confederate government evacuated the city, a “Jubilee Meeting” was held here. Over 2,000 freedmen packed that church and at least 1,000 more waited outside. Chaplin David Stevens of the 35th USCTs addressed the crowd. For the first time in the church’s history a black man stood in the pulpit; although the restriction on black ministers would remain in place until 1867. After the war, the church served as a Freedmen’s Bureau school. One of the teachers at the school was Mary Jane Richards, more commonly known today as Mary Elizabeth Bowser. She was a freed slave of Unionist Elizabeth Van Lew and served as one of her spies. Maggie Lena Walker, the first African-American woman to charter and serve as president of a bank attended services here as a girl. Another member was John Mitchell, Jr. Born into slavery in 1863, he became editor of the Richmond Planet, an African American newspaper based in Jackson Ward. Mitchell would become a voice for equal rights in the postwar years. The church remained at this location until 1955 when it moved to Barton Heights where it continues to hold services.

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