Petersburg church, one of the oldest Black congregations in the U.S., celebrating rich legacy

PETERSBURG, Va. (WRIC) — What’s said to be the oldest operating Black Baptist church in America hopes to continue its rich legacy both locally and nationally.

First Baptist Church in Petersburg sits along Harrison Street in the heart of the city.

Julian Greene, the church’s historian of 25 years, said the institution played a significant role in African-American culture across the country.

“Before there was a George Washington president, there was a First Baptist,” Greene said.

Greene traces the church’s beginnings back to the late 1700s.

Runaway slaves began to worship together and the growing free Black community enjoyed listening to the anti-slavery messages from the pulpit.

“We’ve had over 14 pastors in our 244-year history and that is remarkable in its own right and its own accord,” Greene said.

At one point, state law required White pastors to preach at the church following Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831.

Blacks took control of their church once again after the Civil War.

In addition to ministry, First Baptist Church in Petersburg emphasized education.

The church established Peabody High School, one of the first public schools for African-Americans in Virginia.

Men and women received training to become future leaders in education and political fields.

Greene said the church continues to provide community outreach programs.

“We generally have afternoon and after-school programs for the children,” Greene said.

Members said they have a duty to uphold First Baptist Church’s reputation.

“We are obligated and required to maintain and ensure that we carry that lifeline out for the future that proceeds us,” Greene said.

About 1000 people attend First Baptist Church in Petersburg today.

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