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OUR HISTORY

The Great Legacy of the Historic Springfield Baptist Church

The oldest African-American Baptist Church of continuous service in the original location in the United States of America

 

The area between Campbell's Gully and Hawk's Gully was divided into six fifty-acre grants under Oglethorpe's 1736 plan for Augusta and settled during the colonial period.  The name "Springfield" first appeared on a plot of land west of Campbell's Gully in 1759.  In time, locals applied the name to the low-lying area between the Gullies.  The revolutionary battle of Fort Grierson, fought in the area, helped free Augusta from British rule.  After the Revolution, Leonard Marbury acquired a portion of the land and divided it into lots.  A village developed west of the town of Augusta, marked by a tobacco warehouse on the river, a tannery, the Meadow Garden plantation south of the village, and the site of Springfield Baptist Church.  Springfield Village was included in Augusta's city charter of 1798; however its residents continued to maintain a separate identity as an "upper town" with their own market.  During the 1870's William Goodrich, the city's foremost builder located his factory there and employed black workers.  In 1880, the new Riverside Mill also provided employment for black residents of Springfield.  In the same year Ware High School, one of the first high schools for black youth, opened in Springfield.  Its closure in 1897 was appealed to the United States Supreme Court.  The Court's landmark decision permitted separate educational facilities for the races until overturned in 1954.

Period of Significance

The period of significance for Springfield Baptist Church is 1773 to 1945.  This period began with the 1773 founding date of the Baptist Church at Silver Bluff and includes the construction date of the earlier building in 1801 and the building's history of use up through 1897.  It also encompasses the period of significance for the later building from its construction date of 1897 to the 50-year cut-off date of 1945.

Narrative Statement of National Significance/Developmental History

Springfield Baptist Church is of national significance because it is the oldest African-American church in the United States; because it is an example of the determination of African-Americans to be independent during the slavery era; because the Georgia Republican Party originated there; because Morehouse College, which has produced so many nationally prominent black leaders, was founded there; and finally because the Springfield Church stands today as proof that African-American's too can look to history with pride in their achievements.  Springfield proves that history holds alternatives to the African-American identity of victimization.  The religious expression of the Great Awakening, particularly that of the Separate Baptists, proved to be congenial to the needs of African-Americans and as a threshold to the merging of African and American cultural traditions.  As the first African-American church of any denomination, Springfield memorializes that historic cultural event.  The Springfield Baptist Church is also significant in terms of the architectural, religious, and social/humanitarian history of Augusta and Georgia.  Built in 1801 (although subsequently remodeled and moved), is the oldest extant church building in Augusta and one of the oldest in the State of Georgia.  Originally built to house Augusta's first Methodist Society, since 1844, it has been the home of the Springfield Baptist Church.  The 1897 building is architecturally significant as a good example of a late-19th century Late Victorian Gothic brick church structure.  These two structures stand as a symbol of the importance of this black religious institution within the surrounding Springfield community.

National Significance of the Springfield Baptist Church as the oldest African American Church in the United States

The history of Springfield begins with the remarkable story of David George, a slave who escaped from a cruel master in Essex County, Virginia.  He fled to the Pee Dee River district of South Carolina and worked there until white friends warned him that slave hunters from Virginia were searching for him.  David George fled to Georgia and worked near Augusta for two years until the importunate slave hunters again inquired about him.  This time he went deep into Indian country in his relentless quest for freedom, only to be tracked and claimed as a prisoner by a Creek Chief named Blue Salt who returned him to Augusta.  Incredibly, the son of his former master waited to claim him and reward the Indian.  George proved too resourceful for the Virginian; he escaped again and found his way to the country of the Chickasaws beyond that of the Creeks.  A chief named King Jack adopted him, and then sold him to an employee of the well-known Indian trader, George Galphin.  For three years, David George lived as a cowboy, herding horses and cattle and processing deerskins.  Once a year he led a caravan of horses laden with skins to Galphin's plantation at Silver Bluff, twelve miles below Augusta on the Carolina side of the river.  Preferring the routine of the plantation to the uncertainties of the frontier, George asked to be allowed to remain at Silver Bluff.  Galphin agreed and David George abandoned his wandering.  Galphin allowed preachers to conduct prayer services on his plantation.  One of these itinerants, Wait Palmer, a white preacher from Connecticut, found willing listeners in David George and his friends.  Palmer formed eight of them into a church, including George and Jesse Peters.  George Liele preached to the Silver Bluff community after the church was constituted by Wait Palmer.  Because George Liele dated his own conversion as two years before the Revolution, Silver Bluff's origin must have been in 1773, if not earlier.  Revolutionary violence broke out in backcountry Georgia in 1775.  The war put an end to visits to Silver Bluff by outsiders; thereafter, David George did the preaching.  When the British army advanced up the Savannah River to Augusta in 1779, David George and a large group of Galphin's slaves sought freedom with the British.  David George and George Liele, a slave belonging to a Baptist deacon named Henry Sharp, organized the refugees into a church in Savannah.  When the British evacuated Savannah, Liele went to Jamaica and David George led a contingent of former slaves to Shelburne, Nova Scotia.  After twelve years in that cold climate, George embarked on a final migration to Sierra Leone and established a Baptist church there.  Two Savannah churches have long claimed primacy in Georgia.  First African and First Bryan date to January 20, 1788, when Reverend Abraham Marshall, white, and the Reverend Jesse Peters Galphin, black, ordained Andrew Bryan and organized a church at Brampton Barn, three miles southwest of Savannah.  More recently, First African has advanced its founding date to approximately 1773, the date which marks the conversion of George Liele.  Although Liele preached at various places, he had no church and no congregation other than membership in Big Buckhead Baptist Church, presided over by white Matthew Moore.  Only after he fled to the protection of the British in Savannah in 1779 did Liele organize a church.  After the war Liele and some of his followers went with the British Loyalists to Jamaica.

Crucial to Springfield's history is the fact that Jesse Peters Galphin, one of the founders of Silver Bluff and a member of the refugee church in Savannah, returned to Silver Bluff and slavery.  Fortunately, Thomas Galphin proved to be as lenient a master as his father George had been and Jesse Peters began preaching in Augusta as well as Silver Bluff as early as 1783. In 1926, Springfield Sister Anna Cecil Houston stated that her great-grandfather Dick Kelly offered his home in Augusta for church services two years after the Revolution.  John Asplund, an early chronicler of Baptist history, recorded that there were 180 members of Peters' church, about half of whom were in Augusta by 1790.  In 1793, Peters secured his freedom from Thomas Galphin and took up permanent residence in Augusta.

The distinguished black historian Walter Brooks concluded that "the oldest Negro Baptist Church in this country today is that at Augusta, Georgia, having existed at Silver Bluff, South Carolina, from the period 1774-1775 to the year 1793, before becoming a Georgia institution."  Carter G. Woodson, an equally respected historian, concurred.  In fact, in Woodson's chronology of African churches of all denominations, Silver Bluff-Springfield is named the oldest.  More recently, Mechal Sobel confirmed the designation.  Sobel listed 497 members of the Augusta church by 1803.  A letter written by Jesse Peters in 1798 indicates that his congregation met together without hindrance or opposition from the white people of Augusta.

Springfield served as Augusta's only Baptist church until white First Baptist was organized in 1820, and the only black church until the establishment of Springfield's daughter church, Thankful Baptist, in 1840.  Under Pastor Jacob Walker’s leadership, Springfield's membership climbed to over a thousand, making it the largest church, white or black, in the Georgia Baptist Association.  White historian David Benedict preached at Springfield several times and commented on the excellent singing.  The growing congregation acquired the 1801 Methodist Church building and moved it to the corner of Twelfth and Reynolds Streets in 1844.  The structure still serves as Springfield's educational building.  Under Jacob Walker, Springfield formed a missionary society and some of its members went to Liberia, forming a lasting connection between the Augusta and Liberian churches.  Springfield continued to grow under Walker's successor, Kelly Lowe.  Lowe's status was that of a slave until his congregation purchased his freedom in 1860 and paid him a salary of $1,000.  When Lowe died in 1861, 1200 persons, white and black, marched in his funeral procession.

Springfield and its daughter churches, Thankful and Central, provided succor and guidance to the hundreds of former slaves who crowded into Augusta after the Civil War.  As the senior institution, Springfield also provided leadership.  On January 10, 1866, thirty-eight delegates from eleven Georgia counties answered the invitation of Pastor Henry Watts and met at Springfield.  An honored guest on the occasion was General Davis Tillson, head of the Freeman's Bureau.  The delegates addressed a petition to the Georgia legislature, asking for inclusion on juries, civil treatment on railroads and the right to vote.  They passed a resolution asking for legal recognition of black men's "full dignity of manhood."  Before adjourning, the convention established the Georgia Equal Rights Association, the forerunner of the Republican Party in Georgia.  John Emory Bryant, Freedman's Bureau agent, served as president of the GERA and helped transform it into the Union Republican Party of Georgia.  Two Springfield men, William J. White and Simeon Beard, served on the district committee.  Pastor Watts acted as chairman of the Republican Campaign Club of Augusta.

Another incident of major importance happened at Springfield in 1867.  The National Theological Institute, based in Washington, D.C., offered to supply teachers for black children if Augustans provided the building.  Pastor Watts and William J. White organized the Augusta Baptist Institute at Springfield on February 14, 1867, with thirty-seven students.  By April 1868, sixty students enrolled, too many for Springfield's church to accommodate.  With the blessing of Henry Watts, William J. White founded Springfield's third daughter church, Harmony Baptist and moved the school there in 1869.  After several administrators came and went, Dr. Joseph Robert took charge of the school in 1871 and built it into a sound and respected academic institution. In 1879, the Institute moved to Atlanta Augustan John Hope, the Atlanta Baptist Institute became Morehouse College.  Many African-American alumni have become nationally prominent; Martin Luther King, Jr. among them.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Education Commission, founded at Springfield, pressed for public schools for black children.  The one positive achievement of the short-lived Georgia Republican government of 1870 consisted of an act establishing public schools.  The law required counties to afford education for black children as well as white under the assumption that the schools would be racially separated.  During the first year of operation the Richmond County Board started eight primary schools for white children, four for black, four intermediate for white and three for blacks and two white grammar schools and one black.  Over 400 black children advanced through primary and intermediate grades.  On October 1, 1878, a delegation of black citizens politely but firmly reminded the Board of Education that it had a legal obligation to establish a high school for black children because the Board supported a high school for whites.  In October 1879 Ware High School, a pioneer institution among public schools for black children, opened its doors to thirty-seven students under the capable direction of Richard Wright.  The school was located on the same block on which Springfield was situated.  Henry Watts' death ushered in a rapid change of pastors. In 1879, a faction separated from Springfield to form Union Baptist Church on Greene Street.  In 1885, a native son of Springfield assumed the duties of pastor in the person of George Dwelle.  Under his leadership, Springfield began a lengthy process in 1897 of constructing a new brick church.  The historic old church, shorn of its bell tower, was turned to face Reynolds Street.  By 1899 only the foundations had been built.  In 1905, the church borrowed from the Irish-American Bank to complete the work.

Rev. James Nabrit, who succeeded George Dwelle in 1913, managed Springfield well while he and his wife reared a remarkable family.  James M. Nabrit, Jr. obtained a law degree from Northwestern University and went on to become dean and later president of Howard University.  He assisted Thurgood Marshall in arguing the Brown vs. Topeka Decision.  Ironically, the Brown Decision reversed the court's ruling in 1899 which permitted the Richmond County Board to close Ware High School while keeping white high schools open.  Samuel Nabrit served President of Texas Southern University from 1955 to 1966.  Cecelia Nabrit became the first woman and first lay person to be named executive director of the Sunday School Publishing Board of the National Baptist Convention.

Springfield received recognition from the City of Augusta during the celebration of the City Bicentennial in 1935.  Organizations marched in the parade according to the chronological order of founding.  Delegates from Kiokee Baptist marched first, the Freemasons second and the Springfield members proudly marched third in line before the Fire Company, the Mechanics Association and all the other church and civic groups.

As people moved away from the downtown neighborhoods Springfield Church has managed to survive.  It both demands and deserves to be maintained and its people have been loyal, even heroic in their sacrifices to preserve the church and its historic buildings.  Under the pastorate of Emmett Martin, Springfield began to attract the attention of historians, architects and preservationists.  Historic Augusta, Inc. secured a grant in 1980 to fund a study of the St. Johns Building by Atlanta architect Norman Davenport Askins.  The excitement of discovery showed in Askins' report, "The old Springfield Baptist Church house is one of Augusta's most important and probably least known major historical monument."  The National Register status was applied for and granted by the United States Department of the Interior on June 17, 1982.  Church members, encouraged by such recognition, raised $275,000 to restore the old structure to its original appearance.  On June 25, 1989, the Church presented the restored building to the public.  In 1990, the 1897 brick church also received a National Register listing. A delegation from Morehouse College helped dedicate a cast iron marker reciting Springfield's history.  In 1995 Augusta Tomorrow, Inc., a leadership group, in cooperation with Springfield and Historic Augusta, Inc., revealed ambitious plans for a green park setting for the church.

When visitors first hear about Springfield they express surprise that something so old could have survived.  When they learn about its role in the formation of the Georgia Republican Party and in the beginnings of Morehouse College, they are impressed.  As historians focus more attention on black history and social history in response to public demands, Springfield's fame will grow.  It stands modestly but proudly as an affirmation of the right of black people to a fair share of historical attention.  The church buildings, nearing one hundred and two hundred years old, speak to the passerby on behalf of pastors from Jesse Peters to E. T. Martin and of all the congregations who have worshipped there.  Springfield says simply, "We were here.  We are here.  We belong."