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.
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