The history of one of Savannah’s most important — and underrated — sites comes to life this Super Museum Sunday, with a free screening of a new documentary about the First African Baptist Church.
While most locals recognize the church across Franklin Square from Vinnie Van Go-Go’s, they may not know the compelling story of the oldest continuing African American congregation in the country. With roots back to the 1750s, the current sanctuary — built entirely by slaves of their own free will — dates from the 1850s.
Shot and produced by local documentary filmmaker Michael Jordan, the film Journey by Faith:A History of First African Baptist Church relies heavily on the research of the church’s resident historian and tour guide, Karen Wortham.
“What stands out most about this church is that this congregation began during the time of the Revolutionary War,” says Wortham. “It’s been through the Civil War, and it’s been through Civil Rights. Through all the controversy and all the obstacles that could have gotten in their way and shaken their faith — even with them being slaves — they made it through.”
What got them through was their incredible devotion to their Christian faith. “To me the heart of the story of First African Baptist Church lies in the determination and faith of the people who organized and got this congregation going,” says Wortham.
“The story that grabs me is when one of their pastors asked them to give up their freedom money to build the church,” Jordan says of an episode in the 1830s, when the congregation independently raised funds to purchase a new site. “Their children would have to wait longer to be free.”
That pastor, Andrew Marshall, was “one of the most interesting characters you would ever want to read about,” says Wortham. “You wouldn’t believe that a man during that time period and the age he was would be so determined and stubborn in order to do what he needed to do when it came to his church and his people.”
Marshall — who gained fame by acting as George Washington’s personal assistant during the former president’s sojourn to Savannah in the 1780s — was at one time indentured to Richard Richardson, first owner of what would later be called the Owens–Thomas House.
“Richardson wasn’t the type of master you would think,” says Wortham. “He was more of a friend to Marshall. He was a protector. Marshall would get himself into situations that weren’t so pleasing. Richardson would stand up for him and keep him from being whipped.”
In her extensive research, Wortham uncovered some lesser–known aspects of the all–encompassing faith of the First African Baptist congregants.
“One of the things I found out through research is that slaves weren’t allowed to worship as an opportunity to get to know Christ — it was used as a mechanism of control,” Wortham says.
“When the masters found out that the slaves would do whatever needed to be done in order to worship, they used that as something to hold over the slaves’ heads to get more work out of them, to get a better attitude out of them, to get better behavior out of them,” she says.
“But it turns out that the slaves were actually very serious about their faith,” she continues. “They had something else to look forward to. I believe that is what’s been so amazing about the resilience of African Americans here. They really do believe there is something better.”
Jordan — quite the amateur historian himself — also learned a lot about the intertwining of history and faith while making the documentary.
“I knew that the slaves built First African Baptist by hand, but Karen explained that they had to work all day for their masters and worked all night on the church. They had to build a bonfire, and the men were down on the riverbank making bricks, with the women bringing the bricks up in their aprons,” Jordan says.
“It’s really powerful. Before we started taping I actually led everyone in prayer because I thought we had to realize that this is much bigger than us — it’s about the people who sacrificed so much.”
Fate brought Wortham and Jordan together a couple of years ago. Wortham had been planning a film on church history for years, but it was “laying dormant,” she says. Jordan was already working on a film of his own about local historic homes and churches.
When Jordan found out what Wortham wanted to do, he morphed his project into one centered on First African Baptist, with her as the key contributor.
“I got to know Karen and she’s just a joy,” says Jordan. “I thought the film was just going to be tour of the church, but her project is so much more than that — it’s a story of how slaves came from Africa to Savannah and the sacrifices people made to create the church.”
“Michael is so efficient, and he’s a mover. So he shook it and moved it and we’re ready to debut it,” says Wortham.
“It turned out to be even better than I anticipated. It’s amazing when you look into the lives — I call them the characters — of these people,” she says.
“It makes the story so much richer and makes you so much more appreciative.”
Film screening: "Journey by Faith: A History of First African Baptist Church"
When: Sunday, Feb. 7 at 2:30 p.m.
Where: First African Baptist Church, 23 Montgomery St.
Cost: Free and open to the public.
Tours: Regular tours are Tue–Sat. at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., $5 adults, $4 students and seniors