Located just off Franklin Square near City Market stands First African Baptist Church, the oldest black church in North America. Since it was organized in 1773 by Reverend George Leile, the church even predates the United States’ official formation in 1776.
Along with another pastor, Reverend Leile previously attempted to establish a church in South Carolina. Since it was illegal to gather slaves together in worship, the church was disbanded.
Reverend Leile spread word along the Savannah River until he settled on Brampton Plantation in Savannah to form a congregation in 1773, though it wasn’t until 1775 that he was permitted to preach. In 1777 he was granted his freedom by the British during the Revolutionary War in exchange for his loyalty. Upon their defeat in 1783, Leile, fearing the possibility of losing his freedom, fled America and traveled to Jamaica. There he established a church in 1788, becoming the first American Baptist Missionary.
Before leaving Jamaica, Reverend Leile ordained Andrew Bryan ,,who became the second pastor of the First African Baptist Church. Bryan would preach until 1812 when his nephew, Andrew Cox Marshall, took over as the third Pastor.
Reverend Marshall started out as a slave who drove a carriage. He rented himself out on his own time and became the first African American business owner. Reverend Marshall negotiated his freedom by paying back the money he owed to his owner.
Under Reverend Marshall, the church underwent a name change. “In 1822 we changed our name from what was then First Colored Baptist Church to what is now First African Baptist Church,” said Joe Dobson, a tour guide at First African Baptist Church. The first black Sunday School was also formed with the help of the Independent Presbyterian Church during this time. The church moved from four different locations. After a controversial sermon given by a white preacher Reverend Marshall invited to preach, one of these locations became what is now known as the First Bryan Baptist Church.
“So, father Marshall says, ‘Let’s approach them about purchasing the property,'” said Professor Jamal Toure at Savannah State University. “When they approached them, this is what they told him: ‘We’ll sell the old land and the church for $1,500.’ Also, they told them: ‘You have only six months to pay off the $1,500. And we’ll tell them you cannot take possession or set foot on that property until you pay off the $1,500’. They told them this in April, and in May, they plopped down $1,000.”
A lot of slaves paid the rest of the balance with the money they were saving to buy their freedom. The congregation worshiped in the wooden structure from 1832 to 1855, until they tore it down to build the church that stands today. Reverend Marshall lived only one year into the construction when he died in 1856. It took four years before construction was complete under Reverend William Campbell, who was a carpenter and became the fourth pastor in 1856. Upon completion of the church, the doors were painted red to indicate ownership of the building.
First African Baptist Church is located at 23 Montgomery Street. For more information, call (912) 233-6597 or visit firstafricanbc.com.