Decatur’s second oldest African-American congregation, First Missionary Baptist Church was organized in the Old Town home of Sister Jane Young in 1866 by its first pastor, Rev. Alfred Peters, and 21 members. After holding initial services in a “storefront” on the banks of the Tennessee River, the congregation purchased and relocated to a building on the corner of Market and Canal streets in 1873. They worshipped there until 1919, when members G.F. Oliver, S.S. Sykes and Willis E. Sterrs secured a $1,460 loan to purchase property on the corner of Vine and Grove streets from St. Ann’s Catholic Church. It was here that the current church building was constructed in 1921, with donations of “nickels and dimes” covering the $1,250 cost.
First Missionary Baptist was designed by renowned black architect Wallace A. Rayfield, who also designed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist and hundreds of other church buildings in the United States and South Africa. Its most visually striking features include a two-story square tower, a hexagonal one-story tower, and a front-facing three-bay loggia with broad arched openings. Also noteworthy are its ethereal stained-glass windows, which at one time could be opened for ventilation, as shown in the photograph above.
The vacant lot directly across the street from the church was once occupied by several black-owned business. One of these establishments, Susie Wright’s Green Frog Café, coexisted somewhat uneasily with the neighboring Baptist congregation.
“Anytime First Baptist… had a meeting or anything… if the music was too loud, or the people was too loud… Miss Susie Wright would make them turn the jukebox off and everything. I don’t care what went on Saturday nights, come Sunday morning, that street was clean… That’s just the respect they had for the church.”
In addition to serving as a spiritual pillar of the Old Town community, First Missionary Baptist played a crucial role in both of the landmark civil rights cases that touched the neighborhood. During the Scottsboro trials of the 1930s, when lawyers for defendant Haywood Patterson sought to challenge the systematic exclusion of African Americans from jury rolls, the church hosted meetings between defense attorneys and prospective jurors who “did not fear retaliation.” Decades later, after the arrest of intellectually disabled Old Town resident Tommy Lee Hines sparked a local protest movement, First Missionary Baptist hosted an audience of activists for a pre-march “keynote speech” by SCLC president Dr. Joseph Lowery.
To continue the tour by visiting another iconic Old Town church, head west on Vine Street and tap the button below.