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Over 200 years, Black church makes history, shapes Richmond

Over 200 years, Black church makes history, shapes Richmond

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First Baptist Church of South Richmond kicked off its bicentennial celebration on Sunday with a “Grand Illumination” in which the church’s story was told through the artistry of lights and projected images of its five Black pastors. First Baptist traces its origins to 1821, making it one of the oldest Black congregations in Richmond. It has grown to 3,000 members.

When he would go downtown, to one of the city’s steel-and-glass skyscrapers on the north bank of the James, Dwight C. Jones — the pastor and politician — could gaze across the river and always see the 90-foot bell tower of his church, First Baptist of South Richmond, a Black congregation now celebrating its bicentennial. • From the right elevation, the tower is a landmark that’s easy to see. It’s one that has seen a lot of history, too: gains and losses in equal rights for Blacks, an issue of renewed relevance following the death of George Floyd; and the decline, fall and resurrection of the close-in neighborhoods of which the church is an anchor.

On Sunday, the bell tower, which will chime anew after decades of silence, became a canvas on which the church’s story was told through the artistry of lights and projected images of its five Black pastors: Richard Wells, who came to its pulpit in 1865, as Virginia lay crushed by the Civil War that broke Southern slavery, and — since 1872 — Anthony Binga Jr., William L. Ransome, Jones, and Jones’ son, Derik E. Jones.

The church is calling the event, the kickoff of its 200th anniversary celebration, the “Grand Illumination.”

Dwight Jones, a former member of the House of Delegates and Richmond’s mayor from 2009 until 2016, has been pastor for 48 years. Spotting First Baptist of South Richmond from the city’s professional and political district, he said, was a reminder that it had become an enduring hub of faith and service: “They just didn’t build the church, they built something.”

An anchor of such neighborhoods as Manchester, Blackwell, Oak Grove and Swansboro, the church — it traces its origins to 1821, making it one of the oldest Black congregations in Richmond — has grown to 3,000 members. They worship at its sprawling brick home at 15th and Decatur streets, erected in 1910, and, since 2016, at a contemporary-looking satellite sanctuary on Iron Bridge Road in Chesterfield County.

First Baptist’s bicentennial, which will be formally observed in May, comes at a tumultuous time for Black churches. Long religious as well as political and educational centers, they are confronting — in police violence, white privilege, the debate over Confederate statues and racial disparities in the workplace, schools and health care — issues unresolved for generations.

“To me, this is us saying, ‘We’re still here and battling against more of those same ills that our grandfathers and grandmothers, that our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers fought before the dawn of the Civil War,’ ” Derik Jones said during an interview with his father in a room off the main entrance of the Decatur Street sanctuary that has been transformed into a small museum.

The church, which has held services virtually since March because of the pandemic, was allowing only about 300 people to attend Sunday’s outdoor ceremony. Another bow to health and safety concerns: Admission to the museum — it includes photographs of members, church records and pastoral regalia — was limited to 10 people at a time.

The church’s Chesterfield branch, once a target of state police investigation of potentially improper dealings with Dwight Jones’ mayoralty, has been a magnet for worshippers whose forebears attended services at the in-town sanctuary, from which at least 10 other congregations spun off, said Derik Jones, a former member of the Richmond School Board.

First Baptist Church of South Richmond traces its origins to the African Church of Manchester, the city that stood across the James from Richmond until they merged in the early 1900s. It was succeeded by the First Baptist Church of Manchester. And in 1910, nearly 20 years after moving to its current location, the congregation became First Baptist Church of South Richmond.

Though the church was founded by free Blacks, it was prohibited by Virginia’s segregation laws from having a Black pastor. The church had two white pastors, the first of whom was Levi Horner, who — in a small, framed photograph at the church — appears serious and unsmiling, wearing a stovepipe hat.

“They accepted the reality of that,” said Dwight Jones, referring to Black congregants, who — because of white fears — were denied a pastor of color. “It makes me mad as hell, but that’s the way it was.”

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Twitter: @RTDSchapiro

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