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Bluffton, SC — Almost a Homecoming »« Ellis Square

First African Baptist Church

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

First African Baptist Church

From the outside, the church isn’t terribly impressive, but that changes once you step indoors. The interior is beautiful, with curved pews pointing towards the pulpit and a pair of upper balconies for busy days. The church was built by the charity and volunteer efforts of slaves who, as you might imagine, didn’t have much extra money or free time. But over the course of four years, they got the job done, coming straight from their regular labor to work through the night on the construction of this church.

Our tour was fascinating, and our guide seemed to have a never-ending series of anecdotes, which demonstrated that the First African Baptist Church was much more than it seemed.

For example, the church was built with a secret floor underneath its real floor, and operated as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Never discovered by authorities, the crawlspace hid hundreds of runaway slaves and a tunnel led them from the church 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.

Kongo Cosmogram

Another secret in the church is found in its ceiling, which looks rather plain at first glance, like waffle squares. But theses squares represent the Nine-Patch Quilts, which served as beacons for indicating safe houses to slaves on the run, and so the ceiling is a clever tribute to the church’s hidden humanitarian purpose.

Also, on the ends of each pew, all of which are original and date back hundreds of years, the wavy lines of cursive Hebrew have been scratched into the wood. Our guide wasn’t able to translate any of the words, but he did tell us that a few Ethiopian tourists had visited recently and instantly recognized it. Apparently, it’s still used by Jewish communities in Africa.

Kongo Cosmograms, Underground Railroad Patchwork, Cursive Hebrew… now this is the kind of unexpected history which totally interests me! If you’re the same, make sure to visit the First African Baptist Church, either for the tour or for the Sunday service.

First African Baptist Church – Website
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January 14, 2011 at 1:31 pm
7 comments »
  • 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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