by David R. Bains

In fall 2022 I led a dozen Samford University undergraduate students in exploring the religious life of Birmingham, Alabama’s Woodlawn neighborhood. The students were enrolled in the Department of Biblical & Religious Studies new course: “Race, Ethnicity, & Religion in America.” In addition to its role in the religion curriculum the course is part of Samford’s new “Race, Religion, & Social Justice” minor and serves students in Samford’s Department of Christian Ministry.

Students pause opposite the historic Woodlawn Masonic Lodge (Woodrow Hall) during their orientation tour of Woodlawn. Photo: David Bains, September 2022.

Students completed essays on six congregations:

Those who know eastern Birmingham will recognize that Holy Rosary is actually in Gate City, about a mile-and-a-half from the center of Woodlawn. But I wanted to include it in our study, since it is perhaps the oldest wooden church building in Birmingham. Also English-speaking Roman Catholics have a long history in Woodlawn stretching back to the founding of St. Clement Church in 1909. Holy Rosary is the successor to these ministries.

This essay places these congregations in the context of Woodlawn’s changing religioscape.


Woodlawn takes its name from the family of Obadiah Washington Wood (1815-1893). In 1824, his grandfather, Obadiah Wood (1753-1849), led the family in moving to the Huffman area (seven miles northwest of Woodlawn) from the Greenville district of South Carolina. This was ten years after the Muskogee (or Creeks) ceded most of what would become Alabama to United States in the Treaty of Fort Jackson, following the conflict commonly known as the Creek War. Our class read Joel Martin’s religious history of the Muskogee whose alternative view of the title is captured in its title: Sacred Revolt: The Muskogee’s Struggle for a New World.

In 1838 Wood family purchased what would become Woodlawn and Obadiah Washington Wood settled there. The site of a family residence on Georgia Road is now Willow Wood Park, and the family cemetery is just across 57th Street North from Woodlawn High School. The Woods were members of Ruhama Baptist Church located about three miles up the Jones Valley in what would later become East Lake.

Grave markers of the pioneers of the Wood family in the Wood Cemetery (119 57th Street North), Mary Wood (1776-1839) and Obadiah Wood (1753-1849). Photo: David Bains, 2022.

When the first railway came through, Wood Station was established and in 1883 the Woodlawn post office was approved. When passenger service to Birmingham began in 1884, the area began to develop as a suburb of the Magic City. Churches soon followed.

Woodlawn’s Neighborhoods

The churches are best understood as being located in four neighborhoods. Two were historically White: Central Woodlawn and West Woodlawn. Two were historically African American: Groveland and South Woodlawn. Three of these neighborhoods remain. Groveland became the site of the I-20 / I-59 interchange and the expansion of the Birmingham airport.

West Woodlawn is highlighted in green on the left, Central Woodlawn in orange in the middle, Groveland in blue in the upper right and South Woodlawn in brown on the lower left. Neighborhood shapes by David Bains, 2022, Base map Bethel W. Winston, Winston’s Map of Birmingham, Ala. (Birmingham: Bethel W. Whitson, 1932), accessed via Historical Maps of Alabama
Historic neighborhoods shown on 2022 map. Base map Google map screen shot, 2022.

(For historic addresses of the buildings mentioned below see the appropriate entries in Bhamwiki)

Central Woodlawn

The Wood family and others founded a Southern Baptist church in 1886. They were followed by Southern Methodists (1887), Southern Presbyterians (1888), and Episcopalians (1889). Later Disciples of Christ and the Church of Christ joined these White mainline congregations in central Woodlawn. After World War II, they were joined by a Pentecostal congregation affiliated with the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee). It was located a few blocks off First Avenue North on the original site of the Methodist church. All these churches were located on or near First Avenue North between about 54th Street and 59th Street.

Map of Woodlawn showing mid-twentieth-century locations of central Woodlawn churches. Base map Google map screen shot, 2022.

South Woodlawn

Perhaps the first church established in South Woodlawn was Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church which dates from 1887. Jackson Street Baptist Church dates from the exodus of former slaves from Ruhama Baptist Church in 1869, but probably did not settle in South Woodlawn until 1888 or 1890. Soon these churches were joined by others including Old Ship African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and Mt. Moriah Methodist Episcopal Church.

In 1931, a dispute at Jackson Street Baptist Church led to the formation of the First Baptist Church of Woodlawn one block away. In 1938 R. W. Hayden organized Metropolitan Community Church. These three churches were the three South Woodlawn churches that were part of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights formed in 1956 to champion the cause of civil rights for African Americans.

Many other small congregations were established in South Woodlawn, most after World War II. These included Woodlawn Church of Christ, a Roman Catholic mission named St Bernadette Catholic Church, and several Sanctified churches that succeeded one another in two buildings these included Triumphant Holiness Church, Eagles Nest Church of God in Christ, Woodlawn Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God, and Woodlawn Deliverance Temple. Of these, only the last is still present in 2023.


On the northeastern edge of Woodlawn was an African American neighborhood known as Groveland. Here Groveland Baptist Church was established in 1905. Daniel Payne College (a school of the African Methodist Episcopal Church) relocated here from Selma in 1922. Slightly closer central Woodlawn along 3rd Avenue North another African American Baptist Church, Mount Olive Baptist Church was established in 1922 and at about the same time another Woodlawn Church of God, a holiness congregation. The Reverend Edward Gardner, pastor of Mount Olive Baptist played a leading role in Birmingham’s civil rights movement. He served as the first vice president from 1953 to 1967 of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and presided at many of its mass meetings. From 1968 until his death he served as president of the ACMHR.

Images show a building at Daniel Payne College, Groveland Baptist Church, and Edward Gardner with Mt. Olive Baptist Church.

West Woodlawn

Closer to Birmingham, West Woodlawn developed in the early twentieth-century as a White community. Southern Baptists opened their West Woodlawn church in 1907, Southern Methodists followed in 1909. That year Roman Catholics also established St. Clement Catholic Church. Later, on sites further to the south and west, these mainline congregations would be joined by First Assembly of God and First Wesleyan Methodist Church.

Photograph of West Woodlawn Baptist Church on what is now Messer Airport Highway published in Birmingham Age Herald on December 29, 1929.

Desegregation and White Flight

Beyond Birmingham, Woodlawn may be best known for the 2015 Christian sports film Woodlawn that tells a heroic story of interracial unity in the 1973 and 1974 football seasons at Woodlawn High School. But the unity shown in the film could not stem the flight of Whites from the city toward the suburbs facilitated in part by the opening of highways that destroyed part of the city’s African American neighborhoods.

At the beginning of the 1970s, the construction of I-20/59 and the expansion of the Birmingham International Airport had forced the destruction of many homes and relocation of the churches and institutions from Groveland. Groveland Baptist erected a new church in Central Woodlawn. Woodlawn Church of God and Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church also stayed near by building new churches in Kingston. Mt. Moriah United Methodist Church moved to former building of 40th Street United Methodist in North Avondale. Daniel Payne College moved northwest of downtown Birmingham.

Two of the seven White churches clustered around Woodlawn High School had already relocated by the time the events in the move Woodlawn took place. Woodlawn Christian moved to Crestwood Boulevard in 1967 taking the name Crestwood Christian. Woodlawn Presbyterian moved just over the mountain to Montevallo Road in 1971 becoming Trinity Presbyterian. By 1976 the White-majority pentecostal Woodlawn Church of God had also closed or relocated. Woodlawn Church of Christ relocated to Roebuck in 1983 becoming Roebuck Parkway Church of Christ. Woodlawn Baptist Church was the last to move. Even though its new sanctuary building was less than thirty years old, in 1993 it relocated to a new development south of I-459 where it became Liberty Park Baptist Church. This late and distant remove had its merits: As of 2023, it is the only one of these churches to still be in ministry at the first site to which it relocated from Woodlawn.

Some of the West Woodlawn churches held on a bit longer, West Woodlawn Baptist closed in 1987. The United Methodist church closed at about the same time as well. First Assembly of God appears to have remained until 2001 and the Wesleyan church perhaps until 1996. The Roman Catholic building, erected as St. Clement’s, still stands, but, as explained below, passed to different congregations.

This exodus left Woodlawn United Methodist Church and Grace Episcopal Church as the only remaining White churches in the neighborhood. As the essays students wrote on them for this project show, both came to express a commitment to urban ministry as well as an openness to members of the LGBTQ+ community.

A graffiti mural on the west side of the building at 5801 1st Avenue North captures the prominence of church towers in Woodlawn. Photo by David R. Bains, November 27, 2021.

The Architectural Legacy and In-migration

White flight from Woodlawn left behind a substantial architectural legacy of church buildings into which African American congregations moved. Only the former Woodlawn Presbyterian Church and Woodlawn Church of Christ were razed. East Birmingham Church of God in Christ purchased the Woodlawn Baptist Church campus in 1993 for $1.2 million dollars. Its iconic octagonal sanctuary designed by Lawrence Witten is distinctively modern by echoes aspects of the Colonial Revival. Up Georgia Road the former Woodlawn Church of God on the corner of 53rd Street North was purchased by Healing Spring Baptist Church in 1976. The stately and unique West Woodlawn United Methodist Church became Doers of the Word Ministry and West Woodlawn Baptist Church became new home of First Baptist Church of Woodlawn after its South Woodlawn building burned.

In 1973 shortly after the long-serving priest at St. Clement Catholic Church retired, the diocese handed over the church to the Salesians and rededicated the building to their founder St. John Bosco, with this larger building just off 1st Avenue North now open to all races, the Salesians closed St. Bernadette Church on Georgia Road.

First Assembly of God held on longer before closing and selling their building to an African American Pentecostal community, Corpus Christi Faith Church in 2001.The former congregation still maintains a connection. They held a reunion at the church in September 2022.

Not all the transitions were across racial lines, from 1994 to 2009, Covenant Community Church, a congregation of LBGTQ-centered Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) denomination owned and worshiped in the former Wesleyan Methodist Church on 1st Avenue North. When Covenant relocated to Center Point, the building was sold to Miracles, Signs, and Wonders Church, which still meets there.

Similarly, in South Woodlawn, when the African American South Avondale Church of Christ moved to a larger building in East Avondale shortly after 2001, its building became the home of another African American congregation: New St. Mark Baptist Church.

After Covenant had left the MCC to join the United Church of Christ, a group that desired to remain in the MCC founded Bethel Metropolitan Community church, beginning in 2008, it held its worship services at Woodlawn United Methodist Church and was doing so on May 31, 2009 when a fire broke out that destroyed the 1912 auditorium church, the oldest surviving church building in Woodlawn. The congregation continued, however, erecting a new building a portion of its land boarding a side street, adjacent to its educational buildings. The new building included a gym to support the Cornerstone School which had become the major tenant of the educational buildings.

Neighbors and church members watch as fire hoses extinguish the embers of the fire that destroyed the 1911 building of Woodlawn United Methodist. Photo: David Bains, May 31, 2009.

Congregations are not limited to church buildings, however. Several congregations have taken root in storefronts. These include

  • Jesus the Church of the Holy Spirit at 5247 1st Avenue North
  • Life Changing Worship Center, formerly located at 5377 1st Avenue North
  • Collective Community Church at 5363 1st Avenue North
  • New Testament Christian Church, formerly located at 5507 1st Avenue North
  • Woodlawn Revival Center, formerly located at 5503 1st Avenue North
  • Glorious Light Church at 6601 Georgia Road

New Connections in the Twenty-First Century

The interstate highways that destroyed some neighborhoods and allowed people to commute to Birmingham from far away, also led some religious communities into the city. Church of the Highlands is a multi-campus megachurch begun by Chris Hodges in 2001. Initially meeting in Mountain Brook High School, it opened its main campus on Grants Mill Road in Irondale in 2007. The following same year it purchased the historic Fire Station No. 12 in Woodlawn and opened it as the Dream Center in 2009. It also purchased the adjoining former Eastern Health Center and reopened it as Christ Health Center. Soon, the church was hosting satellite worship services in the auditorium of Woodlawn High School.

Church of the Highlands’s Birmingham Dream Center. Photo: David Bains, 2009.

The Church of the Highlands’ presence in Woodlawn was controversial from the beginning among local churches who felt Highlands overlooked them and refused to partner with them. Hodges’s political tweets during the 2020 presidential campaign led to school authorities ending Highlands’s ability to use the high school. The church purchased and razed the former Gibson School and opened its Woodlawn Campus there in September 2022.

Just as the interstates could bring in suburban evangelicals, so they could make Woodlawn’s historic buildings attractive properties for other minority communities. In 2014, the Salesian mission in Birmingham closed and with it St. John Bosco, soon however the building became home of the Vietnamese Catholic parish, Our Lady of La Vang. (The other Salesian parish, Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Gate City, stayed open and became staffed by diocesan priests. It is likely the oldest wooden church building still in use in the City of Birmingham.) Also around 2014 the former 66th Street Baptist Church just beyond Woodlawn’s limits became the home of Iglesia de Jesucristo Palabra Miel a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal congregation.

Mapping Woodlawn’s Religion Today

A variety of groups are working today to renew and sustain Woodlawn as an urban center. The include the Woodlawn Neighborhood Association, the Woodlawn Business Association, Woodlawn United, and the YWCA. To further explore its current and historic religious landscape check out this Google map. It seeks to represent all current and past religious communities within a one-mile radius and also shows the boundaries of the three current Birmingham neighborhoods that make up historic Woodlawn.

Published March 29, 2023, updated April 24, 2023.


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