High Street Baptist Church has its roots in the Gainsboro neighborhood and was located on Center Avenue, NW, for over sixty years.
In 1884, Rev. Sandy Boston, Rev. J.W. Payne, and other leaders organized what is now High Street Baptist in a building on Salem Avenue. In December of 1886 land was purchased for the church from Roanoke Trust, Loan, and Safe Deposit Company. In 1887 Rev. W.W. Brown became the congregation’s first pastor, and the first church building was constructed.
Legend has it that Rev. W.W. Brown was 40 miles into a journey on foot from Franklin County, Virginia to the coal mines of West Virginia when he passed through Roanoke. When it was discovered that he was an ordained minister by several members of High Street Baptist he was invited to a meeting to select the first regular long term pastor of the church, and Rev. Brown agreed to attend on a whim. During the meeting he was asked to come forward and speak to the congregation. It is said that he spoke with such consummate skill that after he spoke the congregation voted that night for Rev. Brown to become their pastor.
Under Rev. Brown’s leadership, the congregation grew from 41 to 500 members, and the new church building was paid for in less than ten years. Rev. W.W. Brown left the church in 1902; his successor was Rev. J.H. Burks.
Rev. Burks oversaw the construction of a new church on Center Avenue, NW, which was completed in 1907. Membership, mission opportunities, and education all increased under Rev. Burk’s guidance. In 1914 the church caught fire, and although Rev. Burks was inside at the time, he was able to escape. Within a year, a new church was erected.
The next pastor called to lead the church was Rev. W.E. Lee, who served the church from 1917-1945. During this time the church purchased additional land and installed a pipe organ and ceiling fans. In 1935, the church had an official mortgage burning ceremony where Rev. W.W. Brown gave an honorary sermon. That year the congregation also voted to change the name of the church to Second Baptist Church.
In 1947 the church reverted back to the original name of High Street Baptist, and Rev. Robert Johnson Smith became its next pastor. Under his leadership several organizations formed:
- Vacation Church School
- Junior Usher Board
- Women’s Guild
- Junior League
- Young Men’s Club
- Workers’ Council
- Radio Choir
- Sunday School Choir
- Board of Education
During his time at High Street, Rev. Smith was also a chaplain at the Roanoke Veterans Hospital. Increased demands in both jobs led to his resignation as pastor in 1952.
Rev. Frederick G. Sampson, an educator and minister, was the next pastor at High Street Baptist. He organized many new church initiatives. He served the congregation until 1960.
Minister and Mayor – Rev. Noel C. Taylor
In May of 1961, the Rev. Noel C. Taylor became the sixth pastor of High Street Baptist Church. He was a gifted orator and instantly beloved by the congregation.
In 1972 Rev. Taylor led the congregation to a new larger facility at 2304 Florida Avenue, NW. Then in 1985, the congregation constructed the Anchor of Hope Community Center which included classrooms, offices, a library, a kitchen, gymnasium, and apartments for visiting pastors.
In addition to his ministry, Rev. Taylor helped facilitate desegregation efforts in the City of Roanoke in the late 1960s. Rev. Taylor became the first African American to be elected to Roanoke City Council in 1970 and went on to be the first African American appointed as mayor of the City of Roanoke. He served as mayor from 1975 to 1992. Rev. Taylor was considered to be one of the City’s most influential politicians.
Reverend Taylor was the longest-serving pastor of High Street Baptist. He retired in 1998, and passed away the following year.
At his funeral, which was attended by 3,000 mourners, Rev. John Peterson, who gave his eulogy stated that “Noel Taylor served his generation well and then he fell asleep. He was a scholar of a preacher. He wanted no one to beat him at being nice to everyone.” — Roanoke Times (November 6,1999)
Fate of the Old High Street Baptist Church
The old High Street Baptist Church building on Center Avenue was demolished in 1974 and later the site was turned into a parking lot.
Brothers, W. H. (1960). 75th Anniversary:the year of the jubilee. High Street Baptist Church. Gainsboro Branch Library Vertical Files, Roanoke, VA, United States.
Dickens, T. (2018, May). Beloved Roanoke mayor. Discover: History and Heritage. The Roanoke Times.
High Street Baptist Church. (2000, November 5). 116th Anniversary [Program]. Gainsboro Branch Library Vertical Files, Roanoke, VA, United States.
History of high street baptist church. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2022, from http://www.highstreetbaptistchurch.org/history-of-high-street-baptist.html
Old church coming down. (1974, March 18). The Roanoke Times.
Turner, J. (1999, November 6). Roanoke pays lasting respect to Noel Taylor. The Roanoke Times.