State Historical Highway Marker “First Baptist Church” to be Dedicated in Petersburg

Published February 5, 2020
First Baptist Church, Petersburg
First Baptist Church, Petersburg.

—One of the nation’s oldest African American congregations, First Baptist Church traces its origins to 1756; Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the church in 1962

Sponsors of a state historical marker issued by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources will dedicate a sign this weekend that highlights First Baptist Church, one of the nation’s oldest African American congregations.

The public dedication and unveiling ceremony for the marker begins at 11 a.m., Saturday, February 8, at the sign’s location on the south side of the church in a parking lot at 236 Harrison Street, Petersburg.

Speakers at the event will include representatives of the church, the Cameron Foundation, sponsor of the marker, and the Department of Historic Resources. Elected officials from state, local, and city governments will also participate, as well as the superintendent of Petersburg’s public schools.

First Baptist Church traces its origins to 1756, “when worshipers known as New Lights began meeting outside Petersburg,” according to the marker. Around 1820, the congregation moved to Petersburg and opened a sanctuary there in 1863.

The original building burned in 1866, “during a wave of arson targeting Petersburg’s black churches,” the marker states. In 1872, the congregation built the present sanctuary in a Romanesque style.

During the Civil Rights Movement, First Baptist was a center of community organization, and Martin Luther King Jr., spoke at the church in 1962 during a regional meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The marker's sponsor, the Cameron Foundation, will cover its manufacturing costs. The Virginia Board of Historic Resources, which has the authority to designate new historical markers, approved the marker in September 2019.

In 1927, Virginia’s historical highway marker program erected the state’s first historical markers along U.S. Route 1. The program is considered the oldest such public roadside history initiative in the nation. Today there are more than 2,600 official state markers, most maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation and by local partners in jurisdictions outside of VDOT’s authority such as Petersburg.

Text of marker:

First Baptist Church

First Baptist Church, one of the nation’s oldest African American congregations, traces its origins to 1756, when worshipers known as New Lights began meeting outside Petersburg. The congregation moved to the city about 1820 and opened a sanctuary here in 1863. After the building burned in 1866 during a wave of arson targeting Petersburg’s black churches, the present sanctuary was built in the Romanesque style and dedicated in 1872. Peabody High School originated in the church in 1870. During the Civil Rights Movement, First Baptist was a center for community organization. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke here in 1962 at a regional meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

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