[Eight months after the war’s end, an African-American Baptist church petitions its white parent church for the right to invite licensed black ministers as public guest speakers.]
Friday Evening, December 22, 1865 [excerpts from the clerk’s minute book]
Brother N. Rickman, being present, presented a petition from the Charlottesville African Church asking for certain purposes, the use of the basement of the Church building.
After much discussion the following resolution, covering part of the ground of the Petition, was adopted—
“That so long as Brother James Fife may be Pastor of the Charlottesville African Church, it is Competent for him, when in his judgement advisable, to invite any Preacher of the Gospel, without regard to Colour, to take such part in the public services as he, the pastor, may think proper.”
[Editor: Charlottesville Baptist Church (now First Baptist Church, Park Street), founded by the town’s white Baptists in 1831, was also home for the town’s largest antebellum black congregation, mostly slaves owned by local residents and University of Virginia faculty, staff and students; several free blacks were also baptized members. In April 1863 (fifteen weeks after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation), after meeting among themselves, the church’s 800 black members (comprising the majority of the congregation), with the approval of a church committee of white males, petitioned and were granted permission to establish “an independent African Church” that first held services in the parent church’s basement, then later at Delevan Baptist, formerly the site of a Confederate hospital named Delevan).
James H. Fife (1793-1876), whose farm near the University of Virginia included a brick mansion, was one of the African Church’s first three white pastors who oversaw the church until William Gibbons (1826-1886), who later claimed to have been a slave lay preacher during the 1840s, was ordained in 1866 and served as First Baptist’s first black pastor until 1868. Gibbons was a former a slave of both a university student and an anatomy professor during the 1840s-1860s; his wife Isabella Gibbons (1833-1889), an enslaved cook for University faculty families during the same period, became town’s first local black teacher in 1866 at the Charlottesville Freedmen’s primary school, which later became the Jefferson School. After several years of worship at Delevan (which they had purchased in 1868), the black congregation had it torn down, purchased property nearby, and erected a new building (1877-1883) where an African-American congregation continues today as First Baptist Church on Charlottesville’s West Main and Seventh Streets (also known as Delevan Baptist Church and First Colored Baptist Church), one of the city’s largest black congregations; it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.]