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Baptists helping town overcome reputation as KKK birthplace

PULASKI, Tenn. (BP)–Many in Pulaski, Tenn., regret its historical identity as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan in 1865. Besides, said the pastor of First Baptist Church, the town of 8,000 has a more positive side to its history: This is where two African Americans helped form the first Southern Baptist church for white residents in the 1890s.

“In my opinion that deserves more attention,” said Ron Galyon, pastor of the predominantly white First Baptist (Pulaski’s other First Baptist is a primarily black congregation).

“Within the context of 100 years ago in the South, two black men overcame the prejudice against them to help whites. And the Tennessee Baptist Convention saw their concern as legitimate. What I read into that is they were treated with respect and dignity. It shows that something else was taking place here.”

The pioneers were Baptists Jerome Gentry and David Howard, who later pastored several churches in the south-central Tennessee region. Gentry wrote a letter in 1895 to the Tennessee Baptist and Reflector, which ultimately led to a tent revival from which came the white Baptist congregation.

A century later, the church is returning the favor.

It celebrated its centennial last August with a four-day celebration. Guests included two of Howard’s nieces and a member of one of the churches he pastored.

During its homecoming, First Baptist took a love offering for Temple of Praise, the newest African American Baptist church in the community. It also made mission fund donations to its fellow First Baptist and the Boys and Girls Club, with more than $3,000 going to the three groups.

Earlier last summer, First Baptist established an outreach to the Boys and Girls Club, which emcompasses most African American youth.

The work began after youth pastor Lewis Thomas began planning a summer mission trip to another state. But after two months of prayer, he felt the Lord saying, “Your mission is here.”

At a meeting with the church’s missions committee to discuss a local project, he received several names. One was Deborah Patterson, director of the Boys and Girls Club.

“The first time I talked to her I knew this was the door God had provided for us,” Thomas said. “She got excited and started praising the Lord and saying, ‘I’ve been praying for God to send someone and here you are.'”

Like most mission trips, First Baptist sponsored a week-long backyard Bible club. But in Pulaski, it continued all summer, with members returning once a week for crafts, music, games and Bible stories.

About 25 different members of the youth group participated, along with another 20 adults, said the youth pastor.

The youth found it rewarding, Thomas said.

“You could see the spark in their eye,” he said. “When it came to the end of the week, they wanted to know when we were going back. And when we did they had the same zeal.”

For Thomas, another highlight is the tutoring program that has since developed. Half a dozen youth group members go to the Boys and Girls Club regularly to help children with homework, he said.

So do several students from nearby Martin Methodist College. The youth pastor spoke to the campus ministry organization last September and challenged them to get involved.

Patterson said First Baptist’s assistance has proved invaluable. While many of its recreation and other activities already were established, she lauded the members for spreading the word about the need for volunteers.

“I can talk about it on radio and TV, but until I have people coming in elbow to elbow and working with the kids, the word doesn’t get out,” said Patterson, a member of Campbell Chapel AME Church.

Although not directly connected, this is another example of how Pulaski is taking action to overcome its past links to the KKK.

The town has taken “proactive” measures to discourage KKK rallies in Pulaski, Galyon said, as well as holding a “unity celebration” each January on the weekend of the Martin Luther King holiday.

Several years ago its racial reconciliation program earned it an All-American City award, one of just 10 in the nation. And while Pulaski isn’t a racial utopia, Galyon said, positive steps to heal old wounds have occurred.

However, First Baptist didn’t set out to cross racial barriers at the Boys and Girls Club, he added, just help children. Still, some members have been deeply touched.

“I know some look at poor black children in a different way because of being involved. Some boys and girls over there see people who care for them, and people here see children who need their help.”

“I think it’s working,” said Patterson. “It’s given the community a different view of us, too. This is all a growth process.”

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker