On Wilmington Street in downtown Raleigh, First Baptist Church’s 200 years in Raleigh encompass history from the War of 1812 through the Civil War and civil rights to the present day – but the church is more than its history to its congregants.
It’s the place church member Daniel Brown found help for his post-traumatic stress disorder after years as a drifter following his Army service in Korean and Vietnam.
It’s the place where church member and Guyanese transplant George Campbell found welcome when he moved with his wife from New York City, and help when he lost a brother, a sister and a mother-in-law in the space of a month.
It’s the place where church member Virginia Tally learned the leadership skills and love she now uses to expand the church’s children’s ministry.
“The love here – you know you are in church,” Campbell said.
The church kicked off its 200th birthday celebration Feb. 18 with a tea party and fashion show, then a family fun day at the church. This weekend, the church’s history is in focus with four performances of the historical play “Two Buildings/One Heart” by Burning Coal Theater at First Baptist on South Wilmington Street and its sister church a few blocks away.
“Longevity speaks of a strength,” the Rev. Dr. Dumas Harshaw said. “It speaks of the quality of leadership over the years, but also a certain mentality of working together.”
Located on the corner of South Wilmington since 1904, it’s one of downtown Raleigh’s two First Baptist churches. They started as one church in 1812 with both white and black members. The Negro members of the congregation split in 1858 under the leadership of Henry Jett but kept the same name.
“Those former slaves had such courage not only to join in partnership with our brothers and sisters in founding the church, but also to maintain the name,” Harshaw said. “It would have been so easy then for Negroes to name themselves Second Baptist or Third Baptist – it must have been some awful courageous people to maintain that name.”
The church and its members also played key roles in the civil rights movement in Raleigh. Mozelle Dolby Weldon recalls attending civil rights meetings in the church with other Shaw University students before marching to the Capitol.
Today, First Baptist of Wilmington Street is a church with deep roots in the community and families whose membership spans generations. Harshaw is still referred to as “the new pastor” by many members, though he’s been preaching there for 15 years.
Over the years, the church has included many notable Raleighites such as Manual and Myrtle Crockett, principal and teacher at the N.C. School for the Negro Blind and Deaf. Even more significant to the life of the church, many families have been members for generations. It’s the place they say enfolds them like a family, embracing them during both times of celebration and times of weakness.
Tally can recall a church bus that would travel around to Raleigh’s neighborhoods and pick people up for church. Not getting on that bus was never an option, Tally said; the church knew its young members well and kept them accountable.
The bus is long gone, but the church seeks to retain that tie to the community, feeding the homeless, providing space for government meetings and hosting a National Day of Prayer event each year.
The church is still predominantly black, though they also have white members, Harshaw said. They regularly partner with other area churches from Edenton United Methodist to Temple Beth Or to their sister First Baptist over on Salisbury Street to better serve their community.
“A church with that commitment and history speaks to its viability forever,” church member Cheri Beasley said. “Two hundred years from now, when none of us is here anymore, this church will be standing, because of its history and because of its activity.”