In an unassuming grey stuccoed church on the west side of Franklin Square is one of Savannah’s most interesting historical sites: First African Baptist Church, which has its origins in one of the oldest black congregations in the United States.
Informally founded by enslaved preacher George Leile in 1773, Savannah’s First African Baptist Church was formally recognized in 1788, at that time meeting at a barn on a nearby plantation.
In 1794, the congregation moved to the city, building a meeting house on Bryan Street. The church grew rapidly, splitting in 1802 and then again, this time for doctrinal reasons, in 1832.
Part of the congregation stayed at Bryan Street, at the site of the present-day First Bryan Baptist Church. Another part became the Second African Baptist Church, on Greene Square. The name First African (originally First Colored) was retained by the group of congregants who moved onto Franklin Square in the 1830s, initially into a structure vacated by the white Baptist Church and later into a building of their own.
Outside the church in Franklin Square itself, don’t miss another important sight in Savannah’s black history, the Haitian Monument, dedicated in honor of the more than 500 black troops who fought in the 1779 Siege of Savannah during the Revolutionary War.
As the sign over the front of the church proclaims, the present First African Baptist building was completed in 1859.
The congregation purchased the lot – complete with a small wooden church building – from another, white, Baptist church in the 1830s, but the structure was already old, and within two decades the flourishing First African Church had outgrown it.
Members had raised the $1500 cost of the lot and church by pooling their savings from money they had earned for themselves. Slaves were frequently allowed to keep the proceeds of labor performed outside of their regular duties: money earned this way was one of the ways by which the enslaved were able to purchase their own freedom and that of their family members.
Many of the congregants had chosen to give this money instead to their church. Similarly, when the need for a new structure arose, the predominantly enslaved members of First African Baptist again chose to donate their savings and their scarce free time to the construction of a new building to house the church.
From 1855 to 1859, they worked, mostly by night, on the new building. Constructed entirely with black labor (both free and enslaved), it was the first brick building owned by African-Americans in Georgia.
Even the bricks themselves were made by slave labor. The famous “Savannah Grays” were a highly-regarded local brick manufactured by artisan slaves on the nearby Hermitage Plantation. The bricks, which are presently covered over with stucco, were employed in the construction of a great many houses and other buildings in Savannah (in the 20th century, they would become so desirable a building material that existing structures were demolished to obtain their bricks for new construction).
The pair of red doors at the entrance to the church symbolically evoke a part of what it meant to its congregants, the red color having historically served as a marker of two things: ownership and sanctuary.
The church was restored in 1975, but with one notable exception, its external appearance is much as it would have been for most of its first half century. That exception is its steeple: the present, rather squat addition is a replacement for the earlier, much taller tower, which the church hopes some day to substitute with a 100-foot replica of the original.
The first steeple was lost in an 1890s hurricane. Although the First African Baptist Church was badly damaged, Savannah as a whole got off lightly, saved from the worst of the hurricane and subsequent flooding by its elevation and Georgia’s comparatively sheltered position on the coast. Adjacent South Carolina was devastated: although dozens of Georgians living along the coast lost their lives, in South Carolina, the death toll was in the thousands.
The interior of the First African Baptist sanctuary retains most of its original features, as designed in the mid-19th century by members of the congregation.
Many of the church’s original wooden pews, constructed by slaves in the 1850s, are still there, some of them with African inscriptions carved into the sides. A slightly more recent 19th-century stained glass mosaic depicts several of the church’s former pastors.
In the floorboards of the church are a series of small holes, said to have been drilled to provide ventilation to a space beneath the main sanctuary used as a place of refuge for escaped slaves traveling northwards to freedom.
The ceiling is decorated with a pattern of white tiles resembling a nine-patch quilt. To some, this pattern symbolises safety from slavery.
Quilts were commonly made by women, including enslaved women, in the late 18th and 19th centuries. One popular modern narrative claims that African-Americans used quilts and their patterning to communicate messages to each other about how to escape to freedom, and that the church’s interior ornamentation in turn conveyed such a message.
The historical record, however, does not support the belief that the design of quilts was used to communicate information in this way. The idea is instead believed to be the invention of the author of a late 1980s children’s book, having since gained traction from there.
In practice, the use of specific commonly-employed quilt patterns would be far too unreliable a method to convey information about what could sometimes be matters of life or death for an escaped slave, particularly when they might have traveled from some distance away and be unfamiliar with local customs.
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The information below is correct at the time of writing, but please check all details before visiting. For additional information, see the church’s official website or call 912-233-0636.
Tours of First African Baptist Church, given by members of the church, are available Tuesday-Sunday. Tours begin at 11am and 2pm Tuesday through Saturday and at 1pm on Sunday. Adults $7, students/seniors (60+) $6.
A small museum, which you can see as part of the tour, displays memorabilia dating back to the church’s founding, along with images of its pastors, newspaper articles and other artifacts and records pertaining to its history.
Please note that some third party historical tours may include a visit to First African Baptist Church. If you plan on taking a guided tour of Savannah’s African-American history during your visit to Savannah, you may wish to inquire with the guide as to whether you will see the church on their tour.
Services are held on Thursdays at 7pm and Sundays at 10am. More details
First African Baptist Church is located on Franklin Square at 23 Montgomery Street, in the far north-west of the Historic District. See on map
There is a small parking lot in the rear of the church, for which a fee is charged for visitors on the tour. Cheaper parking (free on weekends, in the evening, and on weekdays in some time-limited spaces) should usually be available on the streets surrounding and near to First African.