31ST STREET BAPTIST CHURCH HISTORY
The dawn of the 20th century was a period of promise and anticipation throughout much of the country. Not forty years earlier, however, Richmond, Virginia had been the capital of the ill-fated Confederacy which meant many of its sons and daughters of African ancestry had experienced legal enslavement and disenfranchisement. Although they were free by statute by the end of the 19th century, the vestiges of racial oppressor, discrimination, and segregation were all too familiar. Such conditions were especially pronounced in many southern states like Virginia. African American Baptist churches throughout the country, however, made a significant collective step forward with the formation of National Baptist Convention of the United States of American in 1895. Among its goals, the Baptist convention sought to unite and expand Baptist churches throughout the country; strengthen Baptist churches at the state and district level, and extend Christian education through religious expressions such as art, literature, and music. To fundamentally spread the word of Jesus at home and abroad through its missionary activities was its primary objective and the 31st Street Baptist Church grew out of this movement.
The roots of the present day 31st Street Baptist Church can be found in Fountain Baptist Church, located at 31st and O Street. Fountain Baptist church (which had its roots in Baltimore) was established in Richmond in 1899. In 1912, however, a group of about 200 hundred members left Fountain Baptist because they were unable to resolve differences over direction and leadership. The estranged group began holding weekly worship services at St. Luke’s Hall on North 26th Street. Over the next eighteen months, however, the Fountain Baptist Church was unable to meet its mortgage and other financial obligations and the building subsequently went into foreclosure and eventually had to be auctioned. By mortgaging their home, Deacon and Mrs. William H. Hewlett of the St. Luke’s group outbid a group from Fountain Baptist and subsequently took possession of the building. On March 20, 1915, the mortgage note to the current location was signed by Deacon Hewlett and four other trustees including Deacons Henry K. Walker, William Clarke, Joseph Goodman, and William Dandridge. The 31st Street Baptist Church Colored (as it was initially known) was now formally consecrated. To recognize their financial sacrifice, Deacon and Deaconess Hewlett’s pictures were etched in the original church’s stained glass window and they were recognized as the Mother and Father of 31st Street Baptist.
Nineteen fifteen saw the establishment of the NAACP’s celebrated Spingarn Medal to annually recognize the “highest achievement of an American Negro.” Despite these small gains by African Americans in the back-drop of a world war looming, southern-born blacks continued to experience dismissive treatment. The 31st Street Baptist Church family, however,
began establishing its position as a leading voice in the Church Hill area. The first pastor called to lead the congregation was Reverend Robert C. Williams (1915 – 1917) and under his leadership the installation of the church tower was completed. He later organized Good Shepherd Baptist Church. In 1918, S. P. Robinson stepped into the pulpit of 31st and remained there for the next eight years. During his tenure the building underwent exterior and interior renovations, and the first mortgage was burned.
He was to be followed by the dynamic Reverend Isaiah Henry Hines whose thirty-five years in the pulpit of 31st Street set a record as the longest serving pastor in the history of the church. He held the church firm during World War II, the Korean War, and the balance of the tumultuous 1950s. During his time the functioning usher board expanded to include a junior usher board, designed to train younger men in the church. Pastor Hines also created or expanded other ministries in the church including a working junior missionary circle, a Willing Workers group and he substantially enhanced the music department. It was also during Hines’s term that pews were added to the sanctuary, the pulpit was enlarged, the second mortgage was burned, and the first telephone was installed. Despite Reverend Hines’s church expansion ambitions, he was fiscally responsible and left the church completely debt free at the time of his death.
After Pastor Hines’s death in 1961, Reverend William (Willie) M. Davis, originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, donned the senior pastor’s robe after an exhaustive national search which brought him to the church in 1962. His tenure at 31st Street lasted nearly twenty years. A master theologian, Reverend Davis dramatically expanded the Sunday school program at 31st Street through an affiliation with Virginia Union University. This affiliation resulted in the churches’ participation in the Sunday School Congress and paved the way for many highly trained Sunday school teachers. He sided with the participants in the historic March on Washington in 1963 and encouraged several in the congregation to attend.
One of the defining events of Reverend Davis’s time at 31st Street Church was a fire which burned the structure to the ground on November 16, 1966. The impact of this catastrophe was devastating for the members, but God’s people would not be deterred. Not missing a single Sunday of worship, the fellowship simply moved two blocks away to the George Mason Elementary School auditorium and continued to hear and practice God’s word. In March 1968, ground was broken for the present building, and in May 1969, our Lord Jesus Christ led the 31st Street congregation from the school into its newly built sanctuary.
Davis’s departure from 31st Street Baptist in 1981, paved the way for the dynamic presence of Reverend Dr. Darrel Rollins. His tenure between 1982 and his death in 2007 marked the second longest pastorate in the church and ushered in a new era for its members.
That year in which Darrell Rollins took control of the pulpit, a small band of southern civil rights workers supported by more than 300 sympathizers embarked on a 140 mile march from Carlton, Alabama to the state capital, Montgomery to protest against the vote fraud conviction of two African American political activists. This sparked Rollins’ commitment to addressing such social inequities.
Reverend Rollins was a force of nature as he transformed the 31st Street family into what it would become. A highly trained academician, activist, preacher and mentor Reverend Rollins oversaw dramatic changes in the church not seen by any of his predecessors. He expanded the outreach ministries to more than fifty, including a nutrition center, a clothes closet, and radio ministry, as well as a Progressive League to assist seniors in the congregation. He also lead the most expansive renovation in the church’s history by acquiring additional lots, adding greater office space, making the church accessible for those with physical challenges, and added a dedicated first aid room. He completed this major expansion and still managed to burn the fourth mortgage. He also installed a commercial kitchen which became the foundation of the 31st Street Baptist Church Nutrition Center. This ministry is responsible for providing meals for the homeless and hungry in the East End community. He also equipped the sanctuary with a state of the art sound system, and installed an elevator.
Under the Rollins administration the church developed a motto, “Combining Relevance with Reverence,” to reflect this religious community’s commitment to social justice. In the mid-1990s, Pastor Rollins received a liver transplant. At the time, the life expectancy for the procedure was five years. However, this Christian soldier lived a dozen years attesting to the power of prayer and faith.
Reverend Rollins’s call to mentor was never more clearly demonstrated than when he recruited a fellow Howard Divinity School doctoral student to serve as the church’s minister of music. That young minister, Dr. Morris G. Henderson eventually followed Dr. Rollins into the 31st Street pulpit after Rollins made his heavenly transition. And Henderson became the sixth pastor of the church. Trained under the watchful eye of his mentor, Dr. Henderson continued and enhanced Dr. Rollins’s ambitious agenda. Henderson developed the phrase, “Promoting Education, Arts, Culture, and the Environment (P.E.A.C.E.). This was added to the existing motto as coined by Dr. Rollins yielding the new motto, “Cultivating P.E.A.C.E. by Combining Relevance with Reverence.”
Wasting no time, Reverend Henderson renamed the mass choir the Darrell Rollins Memorial Mass Choir, converted the Deaconess Board to the Deacon’s Auxiliary Ministry for training men and women for future leadership positions in the church. He upgraded the audio/visual system in the church, and installed a licensed and certified Pastoral Care and Counseling Ministry. Recognizing the impact of HIV on the African American community, Pastor Henderson started an HIV/AIDS Ministry. Dr. Henderson also created the Darrell Rollins Institute of “Wholistic” Ministry to focus on social justice issues. The former Grief Ministry became known as the Journey through Loss and Hope Ministry. Consolidating the old prison and substance abuse ministries, Henderson developed the Transformation and Renewal/Social Justice Ministry. His crowning achievement, however, has been the establishment of the 31st Street Baptist Church Farm and Garden Complex which includes a fruit and vegetable farm, a botanical garden, and a meditation/healing garden. The 31st Street Church Farm and Garden Complex became the first urban church in the nation to receive a farm serial number issued by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Throughout its one hundred year history, many have been educated, nurtured, dedicated, married, counseled, ordained for Christian leadership, and memorialized within the sacred walls of 31st Street Baptist Church. As we remember the past, celebrate the present and share our hope for the future, we thank God for this building where we may be still and know that God is with us and for us. We are thankful for those who have gone before us and who have encouraged us by their perseverance and faith.
© Christopher A. Brooks 2015. All rights reserved.
31st Street Baptist Church Copyright © 2017 All rights reserved.