First African Baptist church remains a landmark of history, faith

By Jordan Petteys.

Photographed by Nick Thomsen.

245 years ago, Reverend George Leile organized First African Baptist church in Savannah, Georgia. The church was created near the Savannah River in 1773, making it older than the United States, and was constituted in 1777. Built by slaves pursuing their faith under moonlight and bonfires, this historic building has embodied equality, Baptist practices and freedom since its dedication in 1861.

“The remarkable thing is that they used money they could have possibly used to purchase their freedom or free their families to build a sanctuary,” Revered Thurmond Neill Tillman, seventeenth pastor, said. “It’s as if they actually believed Matthew 6:33, ‘seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added.’ Well, they built this building, dedicated it in 1861 and less than two years later President Abraham Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation freeing not only them but all those who are in slave states.”

Being the largest place for blacks and whites to gather for worship in Savannah after its completion, FABC encouraged community in the face of segregation. “The church has a rich history of being involved with social issues and community issues, and matters that will effect change. I’m on the shoulders of some great pastors,” Reverend Tillman said.

The second pastor, Andrew Bryant, suffered beatings and discrimination during his ministry. Reverend Tillman claimed that publications from the 1780s and ’90s recorded that Bryant, while standing in a pool of his blood, preached to his oppressors, saying he’d only stop sharing the gospel if they cut off his head. However, Jonathan Bryant, Pastor Bryant’s owner, came to his rescue. Landowners secretly witnessed their slaves praying at FABC for a rich harvest and good health over their owners, and responded to their worship positively.

Years later, Dr. Ralph Mark Gilbert, the thirteenth pastor and mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., advocated for civil rights and was instrumental in the recruitment of the first black police officers in Savannah, which were also the first black police officers in the state of Georgia. The Ralph Mark Gilbert museum in Savannah was commemorated in his name.

From underground tunnels that led to the Savannah River to an ancient pipe organ and oak pews, the FABC sanctuary still embraces historic architecture from the original building. Breathing holes carved into the floors remain as witness to the church’s connection to the Underground Railroad. The diamond shape of the holes dates back to an African prayer symbol called the BaKongo Cosmogram, which  represents birth, life, death and rebirth.

“This was a sitting area [Basement Area] during the Civil Rights movement, where they would come to pray and be prepared to go out on Broughton Street and sit-in the lunch counters and be spat upon. Those who couldn’t take that abuse would actually be here praying for those participating in the sit-in or marching in protests,” Reverend Tillman said.

The congregation worships alongside memorials and stained glass windows, honoring the pastors and people who came before them.

FABC advocates for the community with multiple organizations geared toward the homeless and incarcerated people. “It’s not a museum, we have a museum here in the church, but the church isn’t a museum. We are steeped in history but we’re not stuck in history,” said Reverend Tillman. “We believe it’s very important to serve this present age, so we find ourselves in the community doing what we can.” Their non-profit organization, George Leile Visions Inc., named after the first pastor, administers much of their outreach.

First African Baptist Church meets every Sunday at 10 a.m. for worship.