First African Baptist Church
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.
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.
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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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.
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
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.
How do you know the writing on the pews is cursive Hebrew or even Hebrew period?? You gave no facts to prove that it is, just a claim.
Here’s some facts for you. It was Israelites that were brought over here in this Country as slaves. We fit the description of the curse in Deu 28 when nobody else does and the map makers prove that we are the true Israelites who we are because the slave trade was done were the map makers call The Kingdoms of Judah
More claims no facts, what verse in Deuteronomy 28: says “We fit the description of the curse”? This article doesn’t even provide the fact that the church was built in the 1840’s, and how do African slaves become Hebrew Israelites?
The Israelites were on the west coast of Africa, for many centuries. Some were brought from Portugal and Spain in the 15th century while others were part of the diaspora of 70 a.d from The land of Israel.
How are we the only people with no land no heritage no tradition? Not one west Africa coast tribe or country claimed you as there people. So how do you figure you are west African? Because that is what you were taught in school and church? D
(Pastor Stephen Darby spoke about it on Youtube)