For Black people in Petersburg, they’ve always had the church.
Gillfield and First Baptist Church are among some of the oldest Black churches in the nation and have served the Black community in Petersburg shortly after the city’s inception. Standing strong during the city’s times of need, both churches have established themselves as more than a historical buildings.
Upon entering the sanctuary of the churches, you are instantly submerged into the rich history of those that worshipped and preached there. The structure of the rooms for both places of worship are almost identical; a single, glowing cross hovers over the tuned pipes of the grand organs and the preacher’s pulpit. Rich, red carpet and pew seating catches the eye and the crafted details alongside the balconies peer into the distinct architectural work done by the church’s earliest constructors.
Each part of the church’s sanctuary, and the campuses overall, hold a significant bit of the history that reflects some of the prominent Black lives of Petersburg.
“[The churches] gave people the opportunity to connect,” said George Lyons, Gillfield’s current pastor.
First Baptist Church had its genesis across different plantations in the area. Slaves working in plantations in Prince George and Lunenburg would congregate in small churches offsite and worship amongst each other.
For slaves who wanted to ace their craft as clergymen, the safest place to do so was the woods, said Julian Greene, First Baptist Church historian. Aspiring clergymen would recite benedictions and sermons to the trees. The lack of musical instruments didn’t stop the slaves from praising their God through worship. Slaves would utilize their hands and feet, and follow the rhythm of a drum to concoct songs of worship.
“The reason worship was so important to them was because of what they endured on a day-to-day basis–in the hot sun, being whipped, being poorly handled,” said Greene. “Worship and coming together was the only way they could have relief.”
First Baptist underwent three name changes before settling on its current one. The church initially served an integrated crowd before separating in 1800.
A decade and a half later, Gillfield Baptist Church began its service with free and enslaved members just a couple blocks away from First Baptist. The name Gillfield came from a revolutionary war veteran, Erasmus Gill, who owned the land previously.
While members at First Baptist had a large population of Black people, Gillfield, in its earliest years, served both white and Black members.
Arson attacks by white supremacists were used as a way to weaken the early beginnings of the First Baptist Church. The earliest congregations gradually made their way towards Petersburg after enduring such blazes. Even when the church had its official building in the 19th century, the church burned a total of three times before being completed in 1874.
Following the Nat Turner Rebellion events, Virginia’s General Assembly declared that Black churches had to be overseen by a white man. Both churches were led by white overseers from the late 1830s until 1865.
Even under the watch of the white man, Black clergymen and worshippers at First Baptist were able to develop a code system to praise words of hope and sing to better days through hymns and sermons.
Gillfield, despite having to submit to the new law, defied the legislation in any way they could. Sampson White, a biracial pastor at church, was unaware of the new law until he arrived at the church to preach one morning. Agitated by the white men sitting at the back of the pulpit, he declared to the congregation that he refuses to preach to anyone that isn’t his own kind and kin.
After asking the white men to leave three times, White gathered his belongings and marched out of the church, never to return. He would soon start a Black church in Norfolk.
White was succeeded by Pastor Henry Williams who served from the end of the Civil War until his death in 1901, to become one of Gillfield’s most active pastors.
Williams continuously advocated for education amongst his congregation. He kickstarted the church’s Sabbath School, in which youth members of the church would receive academic education on top of their spiritual learnings. Past Gillfield, Williams campaigned for pay equality among Black teachers and their white counterparts.
“He worked outside these walls to make sure that the city of Petersburg recognized the need to educate all of its citizens,” said George Lyons, Gillfield’s current pastor.
There wasn’t a moment in Virginia’s Black history in the latter half of the 19th century that did not have a connection to Gillfield Baptist Church, said Lyons.
“Williams was vigilant and was not going to allow for Virginia to go backward while he had breath in his body,” Lyons said.
Almost a hundred years later, the churches would continue to hold their ground circling the civil rights era. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took the podium at Gillfield sometimes to preach.
Wyatt T. Walker, another prominent pastor, worked closely with King when he would visit Gillfield. King was captivated by Walker’s sense of strategy and his logistic skills.
During the marches in Birmingham, Ala. in 1963, Walker aided the protestors by creating diversion routes for them to escape once the retaliation worsened. His keen sense of detail prevented some protestors from being further harmed by fire hoses and police dogs.
Walker would leave the church in 1960 to become an executive director at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and assist King until he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. in 1968.
Walker was succeeded by Grady Powell right after his departure in 1960.
In his time as pastor, Powell did his part in leading the church through the tumultuous reckoning on civil rights. He represented the church during the march from Selma, Ala. to Montgomery to advocate for voting rights among Black people. Prior, he kept the church strong when ambushed by a burning cross from white supremacists to intimidate the Black church.
Moreover, Powell initiated the incorporation of all church members in different sectors of the church. He was the first pastor to ordain women deacons into a Black church and started a daycare and nutrition program for non-churchgoers and members alike.
Powell does not want to take away from the assiduous work done by his predecessors. His own work, Powell said, was a continuation of a long line of leaders in Petersburg.
Even during some of the church’s darkest days, Powell remained strong. For Powell, he wants Gillfield to be remembered for everything it did for the Black community in Petersburg.
“[This] is a part of history,” Powell said.
Tamica Jean-Charles covers all things social justice for the Progress-Index. You can find her on Twitter @thisistamica. You can also reach out to her at email@example.com.
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