123 Houston Street
Tours of the church are not usually available, but visitors may attend services.
Second African Baptist Church, fronting on Greene Square near the eastern edge of Savannah’s Historic District, is one of the city’s oldest congregations.
Members of the First African Baptist Church founded the new congregation, in its present location, in 1802, where it became a locus of eastside Savannah’s developing African-American community. The church is famous as the spot from which General Rufus Saxton read Sherman’s “40 acres (and a mule)” order. The present building dates from 1925.
Second African Baptist Church has its origins in Savannah’s oldest black congregation, the First African Baptist Church, out of which it was formed in 1802.
The earlier church had been formed by slaves and free African Americans in the 18th century as an entity separate from the white Baptist Church. By the end of that century, its growing popularity made a split of the congregation necessary, which would also aid its expansion and extension across the city.
Accordingly, members of the First African Baptist Church began to look for members of their congregation suited to the leadership of the new Church. Henry Cunningham, born a slave in 1759 but having later obtained his freedom, distinguished himself as such a man.
The Second African Baptist Church was organized on December 16 1802, Cunningham called as its first minister soon after. The Ogeechee African Baptist Church was established at the same time, several miles south of Savannah.
Henry Cunningham was an able preacher and a successful businessman. His hauling business – several of his own slaves providing the labor – made him a comparatively wealthy man, and certainly amongst the first rank of Savannah’s antebellum black businessmen. Cunningham’s popularity and influence were a great asset in the formation of the city’s second African-American church.
Second African Baptist’s new building was erected on Greene Square shortly after its founding, and the congregation grew rapidly, becoming the favored church of Savannah’s wealthier free African Americans. Under Cunningham’s guidance, many new pastors were trained and sent out into the city’s expanding network of black churches.
Henry Cunningham died in 1842, succeeded as pastor by his former deacon, Thomas Anderson. Anderson had earlier been called as pastor to the First African Baptist Church, but resigned the position to return to his home church on Greene Square.
Cunningham was buried in Savannah’s original black cemetery, located around the present Whitefield and Calhoun Squares. After the closure of that first African-American cemetery, his remains were reinterred in Laurel Grove South, where they lie today, beneath a brick vault and beside the other men most prominent in the founding of Savannah’s African Baptist Church.
Toward the end of the Civil War in the winter of 1864-65, Sherman’s army reached Savannah, the final stop on his famous March to the Sea. Shortly after reaching the city, Sherman held a meeting with several local African-American leaders to discuss what the former slaves of the region wanted from their freedom.
The answer was that the freedpeople preferred to live off by themselves, on account of the prejudices held against them by whites; to own their own land; and receive an education.
The result of that historic discussion, held at Savannah’s Green-Meldrim House, was what is probably Sherman’s best known order, Special Field Order 15, which he issued on January 16 1865.
On February 3, Union officer Rufus Saxton (an abolitionist who sympathised with the plight of the former slaves) addressed a meeting of freedpeople held at the Second African Baptist Church, announcing Sherman’s new order and outlining its plans.
According to that order, popularly known as the “40 Acres and a Mule” order, around 400,000 acres of land across the lowcountry and coastal islands, recently confiscated from its Confederate owners, were to be distributed among the freed people, with each family to receive a parcel of up to 40 acres of cultivable land.
No mule was promised. That part of the order’s name stemmed from the fact that some families were later lent some of the Union army’s surplus mules.
By June of that year, around 40,000 black families had been settled on the confiscated land, including on nearby Skidaway Island, but within months of Sherman’s order, its measures were revoked. The land was given back to its original owners, leaving many of the resettled families no choice but to endure precarious post-freedom lives as sharecropping tenants.