Considered one of the oldest Black congregations west of Richmond, the origins of the First Baptist Church in Gainsboro date to September 30, 1867, when former slaves who had attended the Bible classes of Dr. Charles Lewis Cocke, then president of the Hollins Institute (now Hollins University), established the Big Lick Colored Baptist Church.
The church first met in a residence on Hart Avenue, NE. The first house of worship was built on Diamond Hill in 1869. Rev. Edmund Johnson served as the first pastor. Later, to accommodate the growing congregation, it moved to an old hall off of Orange Avenue near Hart Avenue, NE. In 1876 the church purchased the old St. John’s Episcopal Church at Big Lick. By the 1890s the church was known as First Colored Baptist Church.
Expansion Under Rev. Richard R. Jones’s Leadership
Under the leadership of Rev. Richard R. Jones, the church purchased land at the corner of Gilmer Avenue and Jefferson Street, NE, with only $11 in the treasury, and laid the cornerstone for a new place of worship in 1898. The new Romanesque and Gothic Revival brick structure was dedicated on May 6, 1900.
“The congregation of the First Colored Baptist Church has announced that it will move into its new church building on North Jefferson Street next Sunday morning. The new church is a handsome building and has been completed after a long and hard struggle on the part of the First church members. It is most creditable in every respect and immediately impresses the visitor as being the handsomest colored church in the city. Rev. R. R. Jones is the pastor and J. K. Trent the clerk of the church. Dr. Jackson and Armistead Washington are the clerks of the new building. An elaborate programme has been arranged for the opening. In the afternoon there will be a sermon by Rev. W. W. Brown. At 8 in the evening the pastor will give a history of the work. There will be preaching each night during the week following, up to Friday when the commencement exercises of the Independent School will take place.” —Roanoke Times, May 1, 1900
While the church accumulated much debt to pay for the structure, Rev. Jones was instrumental in the repayment of a majority of the church’s loans by the time of his retirement in February 1904.
Twentieth Century Growth
From 1904 to 1915, Rev. W. R. Brown was pastor, and under his leadership the congregation grew, leading to the addition of pews in the church’s balcony and the construction of a parsonage on Patton Avenue, NW.
Rev. E. E. Ricks became pastor in 1915, and through his efforts the church received a matched gift from Andrew Carnegie for the purchase and installation of a pipe organ and upgrades to the building systems that included heat and electricity.
In 1919 Rev. A. L. James became pastor, and his tenure saw an impressive era of growth and prosperity for the congregation. Under his notable leadership the church purchased a lot between the church and Patton Avenue and constructed a Parish Hall, which was used for Sunday school, youth activities, and as a children’s nursery. Stained glass windows were installed in the church, a church office that employed a secretary was established, a Daily Vacation Bible School was founded—often considered the first in Roanoke and with a playground for the children of the community—and the church began to publish the Sunday Bulletin.
Rev. James was also instrumental in establishing the Men’s Club of the church, which cared for residents of the City Almshouse and assisted men in various ways, including through spiritual development. The Men’s Club, with the assistance of Rev. James, published The Church News, which is thought to be the only Black newspaper in Southwest Virginia at the time, until The Roanoke Tribune was founded in 1939. Rev. James also led the Helping Hands Club, a women’s organization that distributed charitable donations to the poor. In 1957 the highly regarded pastor, Rev. A. L. James, retired.
Rev. E. L. Green joined the church as pastor from 1959 to 1966. Through his direction a new parsonage was bought and paid for, and a Day Nursery and Kindergarten was established.
New Building on N. Jefferson Street
Rev. David Lee Collins was installed as pastor from 1968 to 1970. During his tenure, the congregation was surveyed and consulted regarding the decision to build a new church on a new site.
In 1973 Rev. Kennith B. Wright became pastor and oversaw plans to build a new church. On June 20, 1982, the new church for the First Baptist Church congregation was dedicated at 310 N. Jefferson Street, SW, less than a block away from the previous location. This site was also located in the Gainsboro Neighborhood Development Area, showing the church’s commitment to reinvesting in the Gainsboro neighborhood. Rev. Wright continued to lead the church until his retirement in 2015.
Today, First Baptist Church, located at 310 N. Jefferson Street remains a spiritual pillar in the Gainsboro neighborhood and continues to play a vital role in Roanoke’s Black community.
Fate of the Old First Baptist Church
In 1990 the old First Baptist Church building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Efforts were made to turn the old building into an arts center. However, tragically, in April of 1995 the old First Baptist Church building was destroyed by fire. The loss of this historic landmark was strongly felt throughout the community. Residents attempted to preserve what was left of the building. However, in July 1996 the remains of the nearly 100-year old structure were razed.
A salute to “Old First,” a historical landmark. (1995, April). A Supplement to the Roanoke Tribune.
Church of the week. (1982, June 19). Roanoke Times.
First Baptist Church – Gainsboro. (n.d.). History. Retrieved, February 4, 2022 from https://fbcgrke.org/fbc/history-page1/
Kern, J. R. & Pezzoni, D. (1990, August 29). First Baptist Church. [National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination Form]. Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Poindexter, E. R. (1983). Journey of Faith: a history of First Baptist Church, Roanoke, Virginia. First Baptist Church.
Their new church. (1900, May 1). Roanoke Times.
Tolliver, J., Jr. (1996, July 19). History (stubbornly) comes down. The Roanoke Times.