Historic Structures

16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham Alabama

Date added: May 17, 2019 Categories: Alabama Church

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church has served as the religious and cultural center of Birmingham's African-American community, and now also, as a landmark to Birmingham's Civil Rights District. Built in 1909-11, it was designed by Wallace A. Rayfield, a graduate of Howard University and Pratt Institute, and the first African-American to establish an architectural practice in Birmingham. The church was erected by successful African-American contractor Thomas C. Windham.

Located downtown near the former center of the African-American business district, Sixteenth Street Church has been known throughout its history as "everybody's church." Many distinguished Americans such as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Marian Anderson, Mary McLeod Bethune and W.E.B. DuBois were heard there. The church began to receive national attention in 1963 when it became the principle site for organizing civil rights demonstrations led by the Reverends Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King, Jr. The Bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls attending Sunday School resulted in the national and international condemnation of segregation.

The "First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham" - later Sixteenth Street Baptist Church--was founded in 1873 by the Reverends James Readen and Warner Reed, and, as the name implies, was the first organized church for African-Americans in Birmingham. Without a proper structure in which to hold services, the congregation's first meetings were held in "Mr. Paul's Tinner's shop" at Twelfth Street and Fourth Avenue. It was a fairly quiet location in the then just emerging city which spread out only a few blocks in any one direction. But as they brought new members into the fold, the congregation quickly outgrew their quarters. Thus, within two years, they purchased a lot on Third Avenue, between Nineteenth and Twentieth Streets (this would later become the site of J. Blach & Sons Department Store). Here, the members of First Colored Baptist constructed an unassuming frame structure in which to conduct services.

As the city of Birmingham rapidly expanded, the area surrounding the church became increasingly commercial. Succumbing to the pressures of development, the congregation opted for a larger, more residential location. In July 1882 the trustees of the First Baptist Church purchased the current site from the Elyton Land Company, tasked with laying out expansions to the growing City of Birmingham. From virgin territory on the east side of town, four contiguous lots were purchased. The lots extended north from Sixth Avenue on Sixteenth Street 150' to an alley, and west on Sixth, 100' (to which would later be added adjacent lots to the west and north). Here was plenty of room to erect a proper structure.

A Map of the City of Birmingham, drawn for the Elyton Land Company in 1888, seems to indicate that the city was developing along distinct racial boundaries. The majority of "white" churches were located along a central corridor aligned with Capital Park, while the "colored" churches were dispersed to either side (east and west) of this central location, on the outskirts of what was then the city center. Clearly, the congregation was moving into the areas designated, if not officially, for the "colored" population of Birmingham. Another map of the same date shows the configuration of structures with the names of owners and/or businesses, indicating that the area around the church was quickly developing into a residential section of town. Many of these were, however, less substantial structures, identified on the Sanborn Insurance Company maps as "Negro shanties." At least from a planning standpoint it would appear that attempts were made to provide the amenities offered in other areas of town such as a reservation for the colored "West End Park," later renamed Kelly-lngram Park. In fact, the congregation of the First Colored Baptist Church had advantageously selected a location catty-corner from this park.

With the purchase of these lots, and the confidence that this would remain their permanent home, the congregation renamed the First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and a brick structure was erected under the pastorship of the Reverend W.R. Pettiford (pastor 1883-1893). This rather dignified pile was a symbol of how far this determined group of African Americans had come since emancipation for many of its members represented the upper class of that society.

This structure, completed in 1884, was designed in the Gothic Revival style customary for ecclesiastic buildings of the period. As was typical of the style, variety of materials and irregularity in massing created a picturesque effect, with the entry and bell tower as the focal point, situated at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Sixteenth Street. Details included pointed-arched doorways and windows (single and in groups of two and three), stepped buttresses, and a large quatrefoil window.

Despite its stature, and renovations totaling over $2,000 (ca. 1900), weaknesses in this structure lead to plans for a new church by 1908. In 1909, the city condemned the old church building, forbidding the congregation to even enter. Thus, with the financing yet uncertain, the selection of an architect and builder must have been the least complicated part of the process for the firmly middle-class congregation. They selected Wallace Rayfield, the premier black architect of the city - in fact the first African-American to open an architectural practice in Birmingham. Rayfield had come to Birmingham from Tuskegee Institute in 1907, where he held a position teaching architectural drawing. Rayfield was also highly regarded by his mentor at Tuskegee, Booker T. Washington, who had supplied him with a letter of recommendation upon his departure. In the few years since his arrival in Birmingham, he had already built a number of residences for various members of the congregation in segregated neighborhoods such as nearby Smithfield. He had also been selected, in 1909, as the official architect for the A.M.E. Zion church, in the U.S. and Africa, including all churches and parsonages. Thus, his qualifications were considerable.

Likewise, Windham Brothers Construction Company was the oldest, best known, and probably the largest, of the black owned-and-operated construction companies in the city. T.C. Windham was a member of the congregation, and, at one point, a chairman of the Board of Trustees. Windham constructed many of the most significant buildings in the black community, as well as the white. In addition, Rayfield and Windham Brothers already had worked together on a number of other projects, and would continue to do so.

On March 8, 1909, as funds continued to be raised, a contract with Windham Brothers was signed. By April 1911, the roof was on, although the auditorium was not yet completed. The congregation was, however, able to utilize the building, holding services in the finished basement of the church. Thirty-five thousand had been spent on the construction of the church, fifteen thousand of which had not been paid.

When the new church building was dedicated in 1911 it was the largest, most prestigious black church building in the Birmingham area. The prominence of the structure - a reflection of the stature of its congregation-coupled with its size and downtown location made Sixteenth Street Baptist Church a focal point for various activities in the black community. It was the only large centrally located black-owned edifice in the city. Thus, the church became a social center for the black community, encouraging education and the arts with a lively program of guest lecturers and entertainers. Meetings to discuss issues of importance to the black community were held at Sixteenth Street as well. As stated in a Birmingham Reporter, in 1921, "The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is one of the most prominently located churches in the district and has among its members some of the most successful business and professional men of the race.... for a long time considered as a community center and perhaps the most attractive and substantial programs for the community uplift "

In fact, the meetings and speakers in the program the year that article appeared covered a wide spectrum of interests. In the field of the arts were a violin & piano recital by Targee DeBose, Howard University Professor, and a lecture by William Leo Hansberry, Fellow of African Research, on African antiquities. In the field of education, appeared John Hope, president of Morehouse College; and educator and activist, Mary McLeod Bethune. Politics, both local and national were debated at Sixteenth Street including. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) meetings-one to discuss paying pole tax, and another upon the return of the delegation to Republican National Convention—were held; as was a meeting of the suffrage league. They also met upon occasion to discuss issues of concern to the black community such as a lecture entitled "Segregation of Negroes in Church Causes Alarm; Homes are Dynamited and Mass Meetings are Held."

The congregation of Sixteenth Street Church was, in fact, an enlightened group among the elite of black society in Birmingham. They appear to be both educationally and politically minded in the early twentieth century. Newspaper articles and editorials reveal a deep undercurrent of racial tension in Birmingham only hinted at in the minutes of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. As the March 17, 1923 editorial which appeared in the Birmingham Reporter questions, "Are the Negroes Wanted in the Birmingham District?," which explains, "The city of Birmingham, by its commissioners, has adopted an ordinance requiring partitions and separate entrances for two races on all street cars operated in Birmingham....Already the cars have separate and distinct seats for both white and colored...." Racially motivated bombings and fires set on the part of white supremacists were known to occur in Birmingham, such as the 16 July 1921 fire which destroyed the home of Dr. Thompson, a black doctor who was warned to leave his home because it was located too close to a white neighborhood.

Thus, the middle and upper middle-class black congregation, as the successful professionals and businessmen of the community, were forced to walk a thin line between maintaining their stake in the community and concerning themselves with the plight of their race. Making it in the white-man's world, particularly in Birmingham, placed them in an ever precarious position. The threats were as real as their desire to succeed. As with most black churches, because the happenings at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was one aspect of life under their control, it was often the focal point of the community. The church provided for the emotional - and at times, physical - support of its members and the community at large, as well as providing spiritual guidance.

As with other black congregations, the notes from church meetings indicate a good bit of cooperation among its members. Repairs to the church, for instance, were made using donated or discounted materials with volunteer labor. Obviously, the parishioners felt they had a stake in the church and the welfare of its members. Often, charity extended beyond the congregation to those less fortunate blacks to whom they made contributions of food and coal. Thus, Sixteenth Street served the community in many regards. According to a November 20, 1920 editorial "The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church for nearly fifteen years stood as the one big institution for the molding of public sentiment in the Birmingham district. It is centrally located and should maintain the lead of its former history."