Constructed in 1891, Central Baptist Church marks a notable achievement during the early Jim Crow era for being the first church in Charleston that was designed by a Black architect, funded by the Black community, and built by Black workers. Though born from an unfortunate schism with Morris Street Baptist church, it can be viewed as one of the strongest statements that the Black community would not be broken by white supremacy, but rather would continue to fight for its survival and even thrive. It remains a landmark on Radcliffe street, notable for the message it displays below its octagonal belfry: “Jesus Saves.”
The very origins of the Central Baptist Church lie in the history of its congregation. Before the 1890s when the church was founded, the only Baptist churches in the area of the upper peninsula for the Black population were Morris Street Baptist and Calvary Baptist. This left many of the Black residents of Radcliffeborough without a nearby Baptist place of worship. The initial members of Central Baptist had been congregants of the Morris Street Baptist church. The drive to found Central Baptist was ignited by a disagreement between Joseph L. McCoy and pastor John L. Dart of the Morris Street Baptist church over the entry of “illiterate element(s)” into the church, which can be understood as meaning, unfortunately, poorer individuals. In the eyes of those who founded Central Baptist, many of those whom Dart accepted were “fake Christians,” and thus were unsuitable to join the church--something made clear when their early constitution is read in this context.
Against the difficult backdrop of segregation and the disputes about complexion in the Black community, Central Baptist managed several admirable feats in the era. For one, all the financiers of the church through personal donation were Black. Moreover, John Pearson Hutchinson—an African American carpenter turned architect—designed Central Baptist. The whole design of the church and its entirety of its construction were planned, financed, and executed by the Black community, with some thankful cooperation with other communities of color in Charleston.
The church was a product of its time and its constitution reveals a cultural and social conservatism common in the early twentieth century. For one, only male congregants could participate in vocal votes. Another example, which shows the influence of the temperance movement, is “Any memder [sic] being caught under the influence of whiskey shall be expelled from the church,” as would any member caught dancing. This, plus the comment that the Morris Baptist church under Dart had more “illiterate” elements, illustrates the unfortunate attitudes held against poorer Black citizens, even by other African Americans.
Along with Hutchinson and the founding members was another person of color who helped build the church. The famous murals in Central Baptist were painted by Amohamed Milai, an immigrant from Calcutta, India who had recently converted to Christianity. He was met by a member of the church in Greenville while at the Missionary Baptist Education convention in 1912. The congregation then invited him to Charleston and asked him to paint the church, which he agreed to do. In 1915, he finished the series of murals that adorn the church’s ceiling, as well as the absolutely marvelous skyscape across the ceiling. Milai’s participation in painting this church is an interesting reminder of the fact that people of color in Charleston built alliances across ethnic lines.
The Central Baptist Church is an example of how the Black community, though being one with its own divisions, like any community, united to build their own physical and spiritual institutions. It is also an illustration of how people who battle against one form of discrimination, can fall prey to another type of discrimination, in this case that of classism, by restricting poorer, less educated residents from their congregation. Despite this, the church has overcome these roots and stands today as a symbol of the resiliency of Black Charlestonians.