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Bluffton, SC — Almost a Homecoming »« Ellis Square

First African Baptist Church

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Books on: Black Church Beginnings

On Franklin Square, the First African Baptist Church is the oldest black church in North America. Founded by slaves in 1775, the church has a history nearly as old as Savannah itself.

First African Baptist Church

From the outside, the church isn’t all that impressive, but that changes once you step indoors. It’s beautiful, with curved pews pointing towards the pulpit and a pair of upper balconies for busy days. The church was built by slaves who, as you might imagine, didn’t have much money or time. Over the course of four years, they worked at night on the construction. That’s some faith — after a day of back-breaking work in the fields, to come and toil even longer.

Their first preacher was a slave, and since slaves educating each other was forbidden, he would regularly be taken out into Franklin Square and whipped, until his owner stepped up for him and forbid further punishment. Our tour guide was full of interesting anecdotes like this, and our hour long visit flew by.

The church was built with a secret floor underneath its real floor, and was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Never discovered by authorities, the crawlspace hid hundreds of runaway slaves and a tunnel led them to the Savannah river. To mask their true purpose, the floor’s breathing holes were bored in the shape of the Kongo Cosmogram; an African spiritual symbol often used by American slaves.

At first glance, the church’s ceiling looks rather plain — squares like waffles, as one kid on our tour said. But our guide explained that they represented the Nine-Patch Quilt, which served as beacons to slaves on the run. I never knew about that… so the ceiling is a touching tribute to the noble and secretive purpose of the church. Another interesting thing new to me was cursive Hebrew. The original pews built hundreds of years ago are still in use. On the ends of each pew, cursive Hebrew has been scratched into the wood. Our guide wasn’t able to translate any of it, but he did tell us how a few African tourists had visited recently and instantly recognized it. Apparently, it’s still used by Jewish communities in Africa.

Now this is the kind of stuff that totally interests me… Kongo Cosmograms, Underground Railroad Patchwork, Cursive Hebrew. If you’re the same, make sure to visit the First African Baptist Church, either for the tour (daily, at 11am and 2pm) or for Sunday service.

First African Baptist Church
23 Montgomery Street
Location on our Savannah Map

First Baptist Church
Church Stage
Church Bench
Baptist Bible
Willis L Jones
Priests Savannah
Baptist Glass Work
First Savannah
Gas Lamp Savannah
Cursive Hebrew
Kongo Cosmogram
Last Meal Savannah
Savannah Safe
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January 14, 2011 at 1:31 pm
  • September 30, 2014 at 1:19 amVanessa

    This is amazing and exciting. I’m doing research on Savannah and found this article. The cursive Hebrew scratched into the pews just fills me with awe. As a descendant of slaves it’s like finding breadcrumbs that are little known about. Thank you for posting this. I hope to visit Savannah some day and this article makes me anticipate the visit more. Praise God.

  • October 25, 2014 at 4:29 pmAnnette Browder

    My mother was born and raised in Savannah,Ga. We travelled there from Detroit, MI. as children. I recently returned two winters ago to escape the cold of Minnesota in the winter. Reading your articles on Savannah has taken me back. I look forward to moving there in the near future. Thank you for sharing.Annette Browder

  • December 7, 2014 at 7:22 pmBridgette Carmichael

    We were at the church on Saturday, December 6, 2014 for the 11am tour and we were thoroughly impressed. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable about the history of the church and the underground railroad. Unfortunately, we had to leave early to attend another appointment and our intentions were to return for the 2pm tour but we were still engaged in our appointment. She definitely planted a seed and my husband and I are interested in knowing more. We are always fascinated by our ancestors’ history. While on our way home, we were talking about the importance of teaching our children (all young adults now) and our grandchildren the significance of our history. I am definitely interested in learning more and I would like to meet with our tour guide again. She gave a plethora of information and we would like a review so we can determine a starting point to teach our children of our heritage and also share with adults that are interested in knowing more about our ancestors’ accomplishments.Again, our tour guide was awesome! Thank you so much for the enlightenment; my husband and I are currently looking for any information that will further our knowledge regarding our history.

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