Court Street Baptist Church is located at 517 Court Street and is considered the “mother church” of all African American Baptist churches within Lynchburg. Originally known as the African Baptist Church, the Court Street Baptist Church congregation dates its beginnings to 1815 while worshiping at the First Baptist Church. Court Street Baptist did not organize into a separate congregation until 1843. As was typical during this period in the South, the ministers of the new separate black congregation were appointed and monitored by the white parent congregation of First Baptist. After becoming a separate congregation, an old theatre was purchased for the church’s first location and served them until a fire destroyed the building in 1858. The congregation then moved to a converted tobacco factory that stood near Court Street between Fifth and Sixth streets. This facility was replaced in 1867 by another building that would be demolished in March of 1879 to make way for present day Court Street Baptist Church.
When it was exposed that a black congregation intended to purchase a new lot for sale on Court Street, several white Lynchburg residents attempted to prevent the sale by offering larger amounts of money to the seller. During this time, Court Street was one of the areas in town where prominent rich white residents lived. During the days of slavery, these residents wanted their slaves to have churches near them in order to keep an eye on the congregations’ activities. This allowed the previous churches for the Court Street Baptist congregation to be built near or in wealthy white areas. With the end of slavery, white Lynchburg residents did not want African Americans on Court Street and pressured the congregation to relocate. The congregation was determined to remain on Court Street and the church trustees placed a deposit of $100 on the desired lot and entered an agreement with the seller to pay the remaining $2,400 balance. White residents then tried to put pressure on local banks, demanding that they refuse loans or assistance to the congregation. This did not work, however, as members of the congregation put their savings together and contributed enough funds not only for the purchase of the lot, but also enough so that some of the money could go towards the construction. After the lot was purchased and the cornerstone laid, R.C. Burkholder was hired as the architect. While Burkholder was selected to design the church, the congregation had no need to go outside of their membership to find contractors, carpenters, and masons. The completed church was dedicated in July 1880.
Court Street Baptist Church is impressive in design and history. The walls of the superstruc¬ture are brick made at Richmond kilns and while there is no set architectural style describing Court Street Baptist, there are multiple architectural characteristics located within its design. In its basic plan and outline, Court Street Baptist Church recalls a typical New England meetinghouse of a much earlier period with its square shape. Additionally the building’s details showcase some of the prevailing architectural styles of the 1800s. Italianate features are most predominant, notably in the windows. Another prominent feature, which reflects the then-popular Second Empire style, is the mansard roof of the tower. Also through the efforts of Court Street Baptist Church, the Virginia Baptist Convention allowed for the establishment of the Lynchburg Baptist Seminary in 1886, now the Virginia University of Lynchburg. The cornerstone of the first building was laid in 1888 and classes were first held in 1890. Reverend Phillip Morris of Court Street Baptist Church even served as the first president of the institution. In addition to its architectural and historical significance, the church is also a part of a group of outstanding late nineteenth century churches that reside within downtown Lynchburg and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
Written by Kaitlin Shiflett
Former Staff Member