Savannah: Architectural Significance of the First African Baptist Church

While on a black history tour in Savannah, GA. I had the opportunity to enter and move about this awesome historic building in the heart of downtown. I will share the series of photos I was able to capture. However, I encourage learning about its history by reading the following excerpt from the First African Baptist Church website.:

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First African Baptist Church was organized in 1773 under the leadership of Reverend George Leile. In May of 1775 he was ordained as the pastor and December of 1777 the church was officially constituted as a body of organized believers. Under the leadership of the 3rd Pastor Reverend Andrew C. Marshall, the congregation obtained the property where the present sanctuary stands. Marshall also organized the first black Sunday school in North America and changed the name of the church from “First Colored Baptist” to “First African Baptist”. The sanctuary was completed in 1859 under the direction of the 4th Pastor Reverend William J. Campbell.

The sanctuary still contains many of the historical elements that have allowed the congregation to preserve much of its rich history.  The stained-glass windows installed during the Pastorate of Reverend George Gibbons, 5th Pastor, can still be found along the edifice.  A stained-glass window of Rev. George Leile is located outside, in front of the church.

fab sanctuary

The light fixtures, baptismal pool, and 1832 Pipe Organ are all original to the church. They were installed during the Pastorate of Reverend Emmanuel King Love.  The light fixtures were originally gas at one time, but were later converted into electricity. The solid oak pews were installed in the main sanctuary during the early 1900’s under the leadership of the 7th Pastor Reverend James Wesley Carr.

The pews located in the balcony are original to the church.  These pews were made by slaves, and are nailed into the floors. On the outside of the pews are markings written in the African dialect known as “Cursive Hebrew”.

The ceiling of the church is in the design of a “Nine Patch Quilt” which represented that the church was a safe house for slaves. Nine Patch Quilts also served as a map and guide informing people where to go next or what to look out for during their travel.

The holes in the floor are in the shape of an African prayer symbol known as a Congolese Cosmogram. In Africa, it also means “Flash of the Spirits” and represents birth, life, death, and rebirth.

Beneath the lower auditorium floor is another finished subfloor which is known as the “Underground Railroad”. There is 4ft of height between both floors. The entrance to the Underground Railroad remains unknown. After leaving our tunnel, slaves would try to make their way as far north as possible. There are no records as to who went through the tunnel or how many.

First African Baptist Church has been a place of leadership and service since its inception.  Reverend Emmanuel King Love, 6th Pastor, led the movement to establish Savannah State University, formerly known as Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth. Rev. Love also played a big role in the establishment of Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA; Paine College in Augusta, GA.

The church served as the largest gathering place for blacks and whites to meet during the time of segregation. In Savannah, GA, some blacks were not allowed to march with their graduating class. Instead, they had separate ceremonies which were held at First African Baptist Church. 

The civil rights museum in Savannah, GA is named in honor of former pastor, Rev. Dr. Ralph Mark Gilbert, for his courageous work during the Civil Rights movement in the South.”

Visitors from all walks of life have visited out sanctuary and left inspired including Grammy award-winning artist John Mellencamp, actor and civil rights activist Lou Gossett, Jr., Rev. Dr. Jesse Jackson, former Vice President Al Gore, Debbie Allen, and Wally Amos.

Currently Reverend Thurmond N. Tillman currently serves as the 17th pastor of the church. He was called to serve as pastor in 1982. He serves on many organization boards that help empower the people of Savannah, GA.  Our present mission is to Seek God, Shape Lives, and Serve the World.