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Southern Baptist racial barriers broke first in Alaska, California

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (BP)–In the South of the 1940s and ’50s, where whites drank from one water fountain in a town square and “coloreds” drank from another, most Southern Baptist churches were as segregated as any other part of society. But at First Baptist Church in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, everyone worshiped together on Sunday mornings.

That is, they did from the time the church started in 1943 until Charles Kennedy came to town about seven years later.

“He was a fiery little black man,” said Vallie Mae Hawkins, one of 32 charter members of Greater Friendship Baptist Church. Memories are dim, but Kennedy may have come to Anchorage as part of a military two-year rotation, she and others said.

“He just preached God’s Word,” Hawkins said. “He let you know what God was saying, all right.”

There had been some subtle sniping in the First Anchorage congregation about ways of worshiping, Hawkins recalled. Kennedy’s arrival was an answer to the tensions.

First Baptist helped the growing group organize and in April 1951 Greater Friendship Baptist Church, without a dissenting vote, became the first African American congregation to be accepted into the Southern Baptist Convention since perhaps the 1860s.

Paul Stripling, director of missions for the Waco (Texas) Baptist Association, wrote his doctoral dissertation at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1967 about what he called the “excision” of African Americans from the SBC in the years after the Civil War.

His research dealt specifically with Southern Baptist churches in 10 Texas counties, but his wider research indicated what he found in Texas was true across the South, Stripling said.

“Among these churches, 35 percent of the congregation was colored in 1857,” Stripling said. “That was the term they used then. In 1870, the percentage was 7.7 percent — less than 8 percent. The reason: emancipation.

“You can almost see a line drawn there,” Stripling continued. “There was such a lack of preparation for the liberation of the slaves that when it happened so quickly, it was a really difficult time for all.”

The new social order bred confusion. No one knew how to act; it was easier for people both of European and African descent just to avoid each other whenever possible, Stripling explained.

“They kept using the term ‘separate’ and by 1866 it was a declaration,” Stripling said. “It was very apparent because of the language in the associational minutes.”

While a number of Anglo churches helped African American churches get started over the next hundred years, for the most part churches mirrored the confusion, mistrust and fear that clouded the culture at large, Stripling said. But then, it had done so from its formation.

When the Southern Baptist Convention was organized in 1845, about one-third of the members were of African heritage, said Sid Smith, director of the Florida Baptist Convention’s African American ministries division. Smith also is a historian of black Southern Baptist churches in America. For the most part, people with an African heritage were in these congregations simply because of their status as slaves in a member’s household, Smith said.

“In pre-abolition churches (1845-1865) Black Southern Baptists suffered from the imposition of second class membership,” Smith wrote in “Working with Black Southern Baptists,” first published in 1983 by the Sunday School Board, now known as LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“They were usually systematically excluded from pastoral leadership of the whole integrated church,” Smith wrote. “They were often segregated in a slave galley. … They usually could not assemble without White supervision. Even in the Black churches pastors were often White, due to distrust of indigenous Black gatherings after Nat Turner’s revolt of 1831.

“The abolition of slavery brought a Black exodus from slave-relationship churches and the formation of Black Southern Baptist churches,” Smith continued. “In some places, like the Florida Baptist Convention of the 1880s, they were a majority.”

But by 1900, Smith said — Stripling places the date closer to 1870 — most black Southern Baptists had found alternative membership in black Baptist bodies, three of which combined in 1895 to form the National Baptist Convention of America.

Some churches were integrated during the hundred years between 1865 and 1965 — Smith specifies First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla., as one example — but for the most part Southern Baptist churches reflected their environment.

First Baptist Anchorage was no exception. Fifteen of 17 charter members were military personnel; the church itself started in 1943 after a revival led by chaplains stationed at nearby Elmendorf Air Force Base.

“In many ways the military services were at the cutting edge in the struggle for racial equality,” wrote Morris J. MacGregor Jr. in 1980 in his book, “Integration of the Armed Forces 1940-1965.”

“The inherent paradox of trying to inculcate pride, dignity and aggressiveness in a black soldier while inflicting on him the segregationist’s concept of the Negro’s place in society created in him an insupportable tension,” MacGregor wrote. Besides, he added, “segregation wasted black manpower, a valuable military asset.”

So it was that First Baptist Anchorage did not have the separatistic mindset of most Southern Baptist churches, and it was familiar with the “force of numbers” military strategy.

With that strategy, the church started First Baptist Church in Fairbanks, and the two congregations started First Baptist Church in Juneau. Then in 1946 the three churches decided to become a state convention rather than an association of a far-distant state convention, despite the fact that the territory wouldn’t even become a state for more than a decade, until 1959.

With nine congregations as members — Greater Friendship was the 10th — the Alaska Baptist Convention wasn’t going to quibble over something the military had taught them was meaningless: the color of a person’s skin.

In California, meanwhile, the breaking of the SBC color barrier in Santa Rosa was far more contentious.

As war-related work waned in the San Francisco Bay Area after World War II, people of African descent moved about 60 miles north, to Santa Rosa. There was no established black community nor any black churches, but there was not much overt racism either, so they stayed, and they attended an Anglo church. But there, leaders didn’t wait long before offering to help the African Americans organize their own congregation.

No problem — until founding pastor Washington Boyce wanted the new church to be part of the Redwood Empire Baptist Association, in order to continue reaping the benefit of Southern Baptist educational materials and training.

Word spread faster than letters could be written, and phone calls from throughout the state and across the nation rained on Santa Rosa, including some from “highly placed” denominational leaders, historian Smith said.

Despite death threats, Smith said, associational moderator Norris Fulfer broke a tie vote in the fall of 1951 when he determined Community Baptist Church of Santa Rosa was welcome in the association — and by extension, the California Southern Baptist Convention and the national SBC.

And so it was that the SBC integrated three years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled — regarding Brown v. Topeka, Kansas Board of Education — that segregation was unconstitutional.

That same year — 1954 — and independently of each other, 19th Street Baptist Church and Ebenezer Third Baptist Church, both of Austin, Texas, without any fanfare became the third and fourth African American churches to affiliate with the SBC.

All four churches are ministering and involved in Kingdom growth today, though 19th Street left the SBC in the late 1980s after a change in pastors.

The three that remain SBC congregations are among about 4,000 churches known to minister predominately in an African American context, according to research by the SBC’s North American Mission Board.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: CHURCH AT THE FOREFRONT and CALIFORNIA PIONEER.