The First African Baptist Church was organized in 1773 under the leadership of Reverend George Leile, and it is still under dispute today whether it was the first officially organized African Baptist church, or if Petersburg, Virginia’s First Baptist Church holds the title.
Under third Pastor Reverend Andrew C. Marshall, the congregation obtained the present-day property and organized the first black Sunday School in North America. The name of the church was then changed from “First Colored Baptist” to “First African Baptist.”
Visitors to First African Baptist Church in Savannah can view many historical pieces. Among these are the stained-glass windows along the edifice that were installed by 5th pastor Reverend George Gibbons. A stained glass window of Reverend Leile is located outside the church.
Balcony pews are original to the church, made by slaves. The lighting fixtures, 1832 Pipe Organ, and the baptismal pool are all original as well. Cursive Hebrew (African dialect) markings are seen on the original balcony pews, and the ceiling of the church has a “Nine Patch Quilt” design, representing the church as a safe house for slaves. Holes in the floor are known as Congolese Cosmogram, African prayer symbol shapes. In Africa, it also means “Flash of the Spirits,” representing the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth.
The church also has an underground railroad below the auditorium floor. The entrance is unknown and there is no record as to who or how many people passed through this four-foot tall tunnel.
During segregation, First African Baptist Church served as the largest gathering place for blacks and whites to meet. The church even held graduation ceremonies for some black students who were banned from walking with their class.
Onsite historic tours are available Tuesday through Sunday at 11am and 2pm, and 1pm Sunday. There is an admission charge.