Two churches began in slavery; today they are reckoning with that past

The similarities of First Baptist Church and First Baptist Church of Christ, both in Macon, are striking: the elegant planked wood ceilings, the majestic pipe organs, the grand chancels. Original 19th-century wooden pews have a patina that only comes from generations of people sitting through countless sermons.

These two churches also share a history that is not uncommon in the South, yet is little discussed. They began as one congregation under one roof, though segregated by race in the pews, before the Civil War. They later split into separate, segregated institutions.

First Baptist, on New Street, became the predominantly black church. First Baptist Church of Christ became the predominantly white one. Race was a factor then and it is a crucible for the two churches now.

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Now, nearly 200 years since the formation of the original church, the people of both congregations are confronting the long legacy of slavery and segregation and how it shaped their houses of worship. Scholars of racial reconciliation say it is impossible to reach that goal unless the sins of the past are at least acknowledged, if not addressed. The two First Baptists are talking with each other, and they have not avoided the brutal nature of the institution that caused the two churches to split.

With those truths out in the open, some of them grotesque, the churches are trying to build a partnership. Their churches won’t be reunified. But the churches would like to build a new relationship based on mutual respect, joint community service and an acknowledgment of the role race plays in all aspects of their lives.

“We were encouraged that we were on the right track, but we understood the very hard work ahead,” said James Goolsby, pastor of First Baptist Church, on New Street.

Different versions of history

Long-timers of Macon know the history of the two churches. Their origin stories vary depending on the race of the teller.

African-Americans say white worshippers forced the split. Whites say black worshippers chose to separate. Slave owners were simply honoring the enslaved’s desire for autonomy, or so went the story for generations in First Baptist Church of Christ.

“It wasn’t just that we had different versions of history, but that neither was complete,” said Scott Dickison, pastor of First Baptist Church of Christ.

The dueling narratives continued until just a few years ago.

Neither church is in its original building, but it seems clear they shared a late 19th-century architect. They sit just a long block apart. Even so, Goolsby and Dickison did not know each other. Goolsby had been pastor at his church about 10 years and Dickison for just two years. A couple of mutual associates with deep ties in Macon arranged a lunch. It was a pivotal time. The killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., had touched off a wave of activism and protest that had been gathering since the racially-charged killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012.

“Our story at First Baptist Church of Christ was that we built their church, we were good people who did good things, but that’s not an accurate depiction.” —Doug Thompson, a professor of history at Mercer and a member of FIrst Baptist Church of Christ

By January 2015, Dickison and Goolsby were working with New Baptist Covenant, started by President Jimmy Carter to bring black and white churches together around a social justice cause.

Complicating the fledgling partnership between the two churches was the raw national wound from the Charleston church massacre, where nine African-American worshippers were killed in Bible study by white supremacist Dylann Roof.

“Charleston was so clear and blatant,” Dickison said. “There wasn’t any way around that like with Trayvon Martin or other shootings. Like the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and the four little girls, Charleston was a turning point. It changed our conversation. A lot of white people are seeing that this doesn’t have to do with people over there; it has to do with us.”

There were tentative steps at getting to know the other, such as a joint Easter egg hunt for the children of the churches and a field trip to Universal Studios in Florida for the teens. There was a worship service where both pastors officiated. None of it was enough.

Before they could move forward, the two First Baptists had to reckon with their pasts. For that they had to come together, face to face, and talk about race.

In 2016, Goolsby, Dickison and a committee from both churches met to design a series of classes. The first, in September 2016, was on the history of racism. They met at Goolsby’s church, but most of the 75 attendees were from Dickison’s church. There was reticence among many in Goolsby’s flock.

Richard Mathis Jr., 61, has been a member of First Baptist on New Street, the mostly black church, for 50 years. His family’s roots in the church go back to the late 1880s. He was on the steering committee because he’s a former history teacher and saw value in the reconciliation project. But many of his church friends felt differently.

“Some said, ‘I don’t want to hear this again, I don’t want to talk about this again, I don’t want to relive this, that was a rough time in Macon,’” Mathis said.

A few more members from New Street showed up for the second meeting, in November 2016. They were there to hear how their two churches began.

For the two First Baptists, slavery is the beginning.

‘Good people who did good things’

In 1826, Macon’s wealthiest planters, bankers and businessmen chartered First Baptist Church of Christ. Each man owned between eight to 20 enslaved people, said Mercer University history professor Doug Thompson, a member of Dickison’s church. Thompson and Mathis taught the joint class on their churches histories.

When the original building was constructed, almost certainly by enslaved men, a section was designated for them. This arrangement was not uncommon in the South, particularly in urban centers. Black people were discouraged, if not prohibited, from practicing traditional African faiths and rituals, if they retained them after being sold and sent to the Americas. Particularly after the Nat Turner slave rebellion in 1831, laws were enacted barring black people from assembling without white supervision. Turner was an enslaved preacher who interpreted the scriptures to mean deliverance was not something that came after death. Rather, it should be seized in life. He and his followers killed more than 60 white people in an insurrection that terrorized Virginia for two days.

The very architecture of many Southern churches served the purpose of segregated oversight. The elegant galleries in antebellum churches were often reserved for the enslaved. Or they were similarly segregated by being seated in the back of the church. In those sanctuaries, scriptures stressing the obedience of slave to master took precedence over the message of deliverance in Exodus.

By the early 1840s, black people outnumbered whites 2-1 at First Baptist.

“We need to learn to tolerate the discomfort of what we’re hearing and learn from it. We need to do our own personal work, then come to the table more aware and mindful without expecting people of color to educate us.” —Connie Jones, a member of First Baptist Church of Christ

In 1845, a new building was constructed for the black church-goers, but with certain provisions. While independent black churches in the North and the South existed for blacks that were free, that was not the case in most Southern cities and towns. The new First Baptist members were not allowed to have a black pastor. Instead a white pastor from their former church preached and gave sacraments.

“The black congregation was spun out the same year the Southern Baptist Convention was formed,” Thompson said. “So, something’s up.”

The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in Augusta that year, in a split with northern Baptists over slavery.

“Our story at First Baptist Church of Christ was that we built their church, we were good people who did good things, but that’s not an accurate depiction,” Thompson said.

Looking through archives and church membership rolls, Thompson found records that told ugly truths about the early days of the church.

Around 1855, the widow of one of the early First Baptist Church of Christ members needed to raise some extra money. Ledgers contain entries for the sale of two teen-aged boys. One was sold for $950, about $46,000 in today’s money, and a few days later the other was sold for the same sum.

“Then that week, she paid the preacher,” Thompson said.

He believes, based on the ledger entries, that at least some money from the sale of the teenagers was used to pay the clergy.

Dickison added: “It begs the question that’s difficult to get your head around: ‘Were the two enslaved boys church members at one time?’ Did we sell members of the church?”

Thompson said that when Dickison preached about the findings in a subsequent sermon at their church, “there was an audible gasp in the congregation.”

“Afterward, people said, ‘We don’t tell this story.’ We have to do something about this,’” Thompson said.

‘We need to tolerate the discomfort’

Dickison, began preaching about the ways white privilege can manifest itself, realizing that he, too, was still learning. He did a series of sermons based on Rev. Martin Luther King’s sermons on racial justice. Adult Sunday school classes at First Baptist Church of Christ discussed white privilege and supremacy. They read scripture but also books about racial injustice and its origins.

Some of Dickison’s members embraced the new path.

Connie Jones, who is in her 60s and has been a member since 1989, said the omissions in her church’s written history, “speaks volumes on the willingness of our church to forget about our participation in slavery and segregation.”

“As white people, we have become quite adept at ignoring,” Jones said.

But for every member like Jones, there have been some who questioned the need to rehash the past.

“One of our members said she was overwhelmed and not knowing how to proceed,” Jones said. “Then a black woman from First Baptist New Street stood up and said, ‘Of course you are.’

“We need to learn to tolerate the discomfort of what we’re hearing and learn from it. We need to do our own personal work, then come to the table more aware and mindful without expecting people of color to educate us.”

Building relationships

Conversations were difficult and tentative at the churches’ Thanksgiving potluck a year ago. It was their second such gathering. Many black parishioners shared experiences of the subtle and overt forms of racism. The white participants listened.

Yet, many in both congregations say they won’t give up. They’ve begun a joint tutoring program with a nearby public elementary school. Public education is an old wound in Macon, since many white families, rather than integrate public schools, began sending their children to private academies in the 1960s and 1970s.

Some members have become, if not close friends, at least Facebook friends. Some of the older women of both churches have talked about started a sewing group together. They celebrated their third Thanksgiving potluck this year and fed some of Macon’s homeless together a week before Christmas.

“Now they are talking about going into people’s homes or doing something informal,” said Beatrice Warbington Ross, of First Baptist on New Street. “We’re taking it a day at a time.”

A few churches in Macon have asked the First Baptists how they might begin a similar fellowship with other churches across racial lines.

“If I have one meal with you, that’s not enough to build a relationship,” said Jessica Northenor, a member of First Baptist Church of Christ. “But when you see them one time, then another, then another, you start to ask how their kids are or how their vacation went. Tiny movements, they have ripple effects.”

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