First African Baptist Church
Without a doubt the premier historic attraction on Franklin Square—and indeed one of the most significant historic sites in Savannah—is the First African Baptist Church (23 Montgomery St., 912/233-2244, www.oldestblackchurch.org, tours Tues.–Sun. at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., $5). It’s the oldest black congregation in North America, dating from 1777. The church would also host the first African American Sunday school in North America, begun in 1826.
The church’s founding pastor, George Liele, was the first black Baptist in Georgia and perhaps the first black missionary in America. He baptized his successor, Andrew Bryan, a slave who opted to stay in Savannah and preach the Gospel instead of leaving with many other blacks after the British vacated the city.
Third pastor Andrew Marshall was an ardent supporter of American independence and purchased his freedom shortly after the end of the Revolution. He served as George Washington’s personal servant during his visit here. This founding trio is immortalized in stained-glass windows in the sanctuary.
The present building dates from 1859, and was built almost entirely by members of the congregation themselves, some of whom redirected savings intended to purchase their freedom toward the building of the church. It houses the oldest church organ in Georgia.
A key staging area for the fabled Underground Railroad, First African Baptist still bears the scars of that turbulent time. In the floor of the fellowship hall—where many civil rights meetings were held, because it was safer for white citizens to go there instead of black activists going outside the church—you’ll see breathing holes, drilled for use by escaped slaves hiding in a cramped crawlspace.
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition