In the 1870s, and for at least the next ninety years, Birmingham was a racially divided city and Baptists were no exception. White Baptists organized their first church in 1872. African American Baptists organized their first church the next year. This a guide to a variety of Baptist landmarks without regard to historic racial affiliation or later theological division, but as we will see race is a pivotal part of the story.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
Birmingham’s most famous religious site is Sixteenth Street Baptist Church because it was bombed by Klu Klux Klan members on the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963. Four girls died in the blast, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robinson, and Denise McNair, The church is still an active congregation. It is now a part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. It is located on the northwest corner of 16th Street and 6th Avenue North and offers tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Friday.
Founded in 1873, Sixteenth Street was the first African American Baptist church organized in Birmingham. The current building was designed by Wallace Rayfield, a prominent African American architect who trained at Tuskegee Institute. Completed in 1911, it is a unique combination of a Romanesque brick auditorium with Palladian and Georgian design features.
In terms of art, Sixteenth Street is most famous for the Wales Window for Alabama created by John Petts of Llansteffan, Carmarthenshire, Wales, and funded by many small donations from the people of Wales. Intended to express both sorrow and hope, It depicts the crucified Christ as an African American surmounted by a rainbow. One of Christ’s hand’s suggests struggle by pushing against the frame of the window. A circle suggests the world. Below it is Christ’s statement from the Gospel Matthew, “You do it to me.”
Petts initially intended to replace a window damaged by the bombing. However, the church decided to restore that window which depicted Christ as a white man, knocking at a door. The Wales Window was installed above the rear gallery over the front door of the church.
Kelly Ingram Park
Four Spirits Sculpture
The four girls are memorialized in the Four Spirits sculpture by Elizabeth MacQueen located diagonally across from the church on the corner of Kelly Ingram Park. Not all of them were Baptist. Denise McNair’s family attended St. Paul Lutheran Church, But she was attending with her friends for children’s day.
Kelly Ingram Park was one of three parks in the initial plan for Birmingham. It served the African American residential community that developed on the west side of downtown. It was here in May 1963 that Birmingham police confronted student demonstrators, arresting them and turning firehoses on them. It was rededicated in 1992 as “A Place of Revolution and Reconciliation.” From the park begin a number of civil rights march routes, that present walking tours through colorful signs. Many of the leaders and foot soldiers of the civil rights movement were Baptists, as were those who supported Jim Crow, so these too are Baptist sites.
Praying Ministers Sculpture
The four girls killed by the bombers are also represented by the four broken pillars surrounding a sculpture of three Baptist ministers praying at the far corner of the park.
The sculpture depicts Birmingham ministers Nelson H. Smith of New Pilgrim Baptist Church and John Porter of Sixth Avenue Baptist Church along with A.D. King of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Newnan, Georgia. It represents their action at the conclusion of a civil rights march on Palm Sunday, 1963.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Statue
On the pathway between the two corners is a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., Baptist minister and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King began his Letter from Birmingham Jail while in the jail over Easter weekend 1963.
To learn about the park’s many other statues, a good place to start is this article by Kathleen Logothetis Thompson.
Fred Shuttlesworth Statue
Across the street from King, in front of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, is a statue Fred Shuttlesworth, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham’s Collegeville neighborhood and Birmingham’s major civil rights leader of the 1950s and 1960s
Bethel was in many respects the center of the civil rights movement in Birmingham and is also included in the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. The block on which it stands is ringed with interpretative signs as part of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Trail. Located at 3233 29th St. N. it is well worth a visit. Folks flying into Birmingham should see the exhibit on him on the baggage claim level of the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. For more information read the definitive biography A Fire You Can’t Put Out by Samford University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary graduate Andrew Manis.
Birthplace of the Sunday School Board (LifeWay)
The Southern Baptist Convention met in Birmingham three times between 1891 and the 1941. The founding of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board (now LifeWay) at the 1891 meeting is memorialized by a stone tablet in the sidewalk on the northwest corner of 1st Avenue North and 19th Street. The convention met in the O’Brien Opera House which stood here until 1915.
At the north end of the this block is the Pizitz building. Its food hall has many dining options. The Pizitz was a department store. It is now an apartment building. It may seem odd to say that the Pizitz and the rest of commercial Birmingham is is a Baptist site because many Baptists worked here and now some live here. But. as I argue in an essay forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook of Religious Space, for Baptists and other Protestants, a space takes on religious meaning whenever it is used for encountering God, enacting Christian community, forming Christians, or redeeming the world. Doubtless acts of Baptist fellowship and witness occurred over the jewelry counters here and do occur at its tables.
Woman’s Missionary Union
While the Sunday School Board became based in Nashville, the Woman’s Missionary Union moved from Baltimore to Birmingham in 1921. Initially it was based in what was then known as Comer Building, a 27-story neo-classical skyscraper on the northwest corner of 2nd Avenue North and 21st Street. The building is now known as the City Federal Building and contains apartments. In 1951 the WMU purchased and relocated to the Family Reserve Insurance Building at 600 20th Street North, a landmark Greek-revival office building designed by the Birmingham firm of Warren Knight and Davis. In 1984, the WMU relocated to a suburban site eleven miles to the southwest off US-280.
Sites of Previous Conventions
The sites used for the last Southern Baptist Convention in Birmingham still stand. The convention was held in the Civic Auditorium, built in 1924. It was later expanded and renamed for Birmingham mayor Albert Boutwell. Along with the Birmingham musuem of art, the city hall, the county courthouse, and the public library the auditorium is part of a classic twentieth century civic center complex surrounding Linn Park.
In 1941, the Southern Baptist Pastor’s Conference was held at First Methodist Church, downtown Birmingham’s largest church. Located on the southeast corner of 19th St. and 6th Ave. N., the building was designed by the prolific church architect George Washington Kramer of Akron, Ohio. Completed in 1891. It is a superb example of a Richardsonian Romanesque auditorium church. Such churches were very popular among Protestants at the close of the nineteenth century. Its fortress-like walls enclosed many modern conveniences including a system of forced-air ice-cooled air conditioning.
Former Site of First Baptist Church
First Baptist Church‘s 1905 building was built in the same style and located four blocks east on 6th Avenue North on the southeast corner of the intersection of 23rd Street. The congregation had met in buildings on this site since 1872. The Richardsonian Romanesque builing was designed by another prolific church architect, Reuben Harrison Hunt of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Hunt designed many churches across the South in the same basic form as First Baptist.
First Baptist exercised a pioneering role not only in the regular congregational activities of worship, education, and mission support, but also in establishing the Baptist Book Store and Baptist Health System in Birmingham.
In 1970, First Baptist divided over the admission of African Americans to church membership. The pastor and others in favor of admitting an African American mother and daughter left the church and formed Baptist Church of the Covenant. Its building is fourteen blocks south on southwest corner of University Boulevard and 23rd Street South. First Baptist remained downtown until 1984 when AmSouth Bank offered to buy their site for a parking lot and the congregation moved itself and its stained glass windows to a new Colonial Georgian Revival building four and a half miles south on Lakeshore Drive near Samford University.
Baptist Futures Downtown
First Baptist was by no means the only congregation to leave downtown. Among historically white religious congregations, Disciples, Congregationalist, and Jewish congregations also left. Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and United Methodists stayed in their historic buildings. Both staying and moving were difficult. Various specific factors shaped each congregation’s choice. But two characteristics that those which stayed share are connectional polity and a stronger attachment to the aesthetic qualities of historic houses of worship. Baptist congregations, like Disciples, Congregationalists, and Jews, have the freedom to decide their own future and sometimes less support from their denominations for persevering in difficult situations.
In recent years, several new congregations with Baptist ties have begun in urban neighborhoods just outside of downtown. These include Immanuel Church, the Church at Southside, and Iron City Church. Like Baptist Church of the Covenant which initially met in an building that was formerly a bank, each of these congregations has adopted a provisional attitude toward church buildings. For example, the Church at Southside meets in a parking lot. They also each seek to reach a diverse collection of people.
Urban neighborhoods are dynamic. More people are living in downtown Birmingham than in many decades and many more visit it for entertainment as well as work. It will be interesting to see what new Baptist sites emerge in the coming decades.
[Unless otherwise noted all photographs were taken by David R. Bains in 2018 or 2019. A version of this essay was first published in June 2019 at Chasing Churches.]