Black Baptists have strong Alexandria roots
The foundation of the Alfred Street Baptist Church, originally constructed in 1855, during its recent renovation. Photo courtesy of Alexandria Archaeology.
The founders were five men and seven women. Pertinent to our study of the first African American Baptist congregation, Alice Lawrason was one of these Baptist women. Five years earlier, Alice and merchant husband James had started leasing South Alfred Street lots to free blacks.
The early church records document African American members at the formation of the Alexandria congregation. Just one month after leaving Back Lick, the Baptist Church Record Book notes black members. Susan Black, or black Susan, slave of John Johnston was admitted by baptism. Other blacks baptized in 1803 include Betty, slave to Thomas Swann and Silvia (or Silver), owned by Andrew Jameson.
In 18th and 19th century Virginia, Baptists and Methodists gained many African American members. They often had philosophies opposing slavery and opened the clergy to those called by the heart, not just to those formally trained. Black congregations started as early as 1756 in Virginia. By 1776, black preachers led an African American congregation in Williamsburg.
There were also black preachers in Alexandria. Jesse Henderson and Charles Thompson (or Thomas) were both given the authority to preach; however, it appears that both men were called to preach more often than the church permitted. They were censured for speaking.
In 1814, the church made a significant ruling that opened the door to African American autonomy: "the church having heared Charles Thomas, a man of color exercise his gift more than once and are fully to the opinion that he is not qualified to preach. But notwithstanding if amongst his colored brethren they invite him to give a word of exhortation at any tine, the church will take no offense therat."
Four years later Jesse Henderson, Daniel Taylor, and Evan Williams, trustees of the Coloured Baptist Society, leased land from the Lawrasons in the 300 block of South Alfred Street. A meeting house was erected about 1819. The trustees purchased the property in 1842, and built a "handsome, and commodious Brick Church" in 1855.
Today this building, as a part of the Alfred Street Baptist Church, still stands as a landmark to African American independence and spiritual unity. It has been a place where free people, such as Daniel Taylor, had the "liberty to exercise his gift in exhortation ...whenever God is pleased to grant an opportunity."
The Downtown Baptist Church now occupies the South Washington Street property, while the First Baptist Church continues its nearly 200 year tradition in the 2900 block of King Street.
Pamela Cressey is the City Archaeologist.