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First African Baptist Church was one of nation's largest churches: 'Appreciate the journey'

First African Baptist Church was one of nation's largest churches: 'Appreciate the journey'
Posted at 11:34 PM, Oct 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-06 23:34:51-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- First African Baptist Church stands tall at 2700 Hanes Avenue in Richmond.

The ministry has been in the city for almost two centuries and is a big part of its history. First African Baptist Church is home to one of the oldest Black congregations in the Commonwealth.

The Encyclopedia of Virginia recognizes it as the first all-Black Baptist Church in the city. The congregation was once part of First Baptist Church.

"According to the historians, the African Americans began to outnumber the Caucasians, and so we were granted permission to start our own church,” said Dr. Rodney Waller, Senior Pastor of First African Baptist Church.

In 1841, Black members purchased the building and added African to the name. The first African Baptist Church was established in 1841 by slaves and freed Blacks.

The first building where the congregation met was torn down and replaced with the present structure on College Street and East Broad, where the Virginia Medical College now stands. The building serves as a symbol of the progress of Richmond’s Black community in the late 19th century.

Back then, state law required that an all-white committee had to oversee the church and a white minister had to serve as pastor. Robert Ryland, a slave owner and former president of the University of Richmond, was the first pastor of First African Baptist Church.

Dr. Rodney Waller is the current pastor and has been leading the ministry for 14-years.

“It’s a blessing, it’s an honor. It also makes you appreciate the journey that God has for you and appreciate the places that he will place you,” said Waller.

Years before Waller, Dr. James H. Holmes, a former slave, became the first Black pastor. Holmes replaced Robert Ryland after the fall of the Confederacy. Under Holmes' leadership, First African Baptist grew to become one of the largest churches in the country, with thousands of members who traveled from all over to worship on Sundays.

"It's one of the pillars of the country, as well as a pillar of Richmond," said Waller.

First African Baptist was the center of key networks of Black economic, social and cultural power. Blacks came together to shape, strengthen and better their communities.

Dr. Waller says many influential people like entrepreneur Maggie Walker and Former Governor Douglas Wilder called the ministry home. Many other well-known leaders in the Black community spent time in the building.

"Dr. Wyatt T. Walker, Dr. Joseph Lowry, Dr. Martin Luther King, they were here and I have a picture on my wall of them sitting in the pulpit," Waller said, sharing names of historical figures who worshipped at the church.

First African Baptist Church moved to its current location on Hanes Avenue in 1955 after selling its property to the Virginia Medical College.

“When we came to this community it was thriving. African Americans were highly populated in this community,” said Waller, describing the move.

Pieces of the church’s powerful past are on display throughout the building. The stained glass and gigantic organ in the sanctuary are vivid reminders of its history. But, a lot has changed.

“It’s different, I’m sure, from the legacy of the church. I’ve seen how the church has transitioned in so many ways, spiritually, numerically, physically, it’s much different, I think,” explained Waller, talking about the current church.

Waller says the legacy of the church is sometimes taken for granted.

“I think that this new generation really doesn’t appreciate the history, as those persons of the past,” he said.

While the past is important, Dr. Waller says the congregation is working to survive and thrive today. His vision is to help the church continue to grow into a ministry that speaks to all generations.

“My hope is that we don’t allow history to allow us to become a museum, but let history be that which motivates us to be impactful in the future,” he said. "We believe that God is going to do some great and marvelous things."

You can learn more about First Baptist African Church by visiting their website.

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