Sheila Jackson was just a toddler when she noticed the symbols carved on the benches at First African Baptist Church.
Her father, the Rev. Curtis J. Jackson, would’ve been delivering a sermon at the time, perhaps eyeing his daughter for not facing forward. Decades later, Sheila would see those symbols again — this time in a graduate school textbook identifying them as classical West African Arabic script, one of the earliest forms of writing.
“I was just a baby, but I remember those bits and pieces,” Sheila said.
The Rev. Jackson was the pastor at FABC from 1957-61, and Sheila was 4 when the family moved out of Savannah.
“I told my professor I’d seen these symbols before, and we figured that slaves had carved them,” she said. “That’s when I really started to appreciate just where I had been going to church.”
First African Baptist Church is the oldest black church in North America, according to firstafricanbc.com/history. First constituted as a body of organized believers in 1777 under the leadership of the Rev. George Leile, the congregation at FABC wouldn’t complete the original sanctuary on Franklin Square until 1859.
Enslaved Africans built the structure, likely after laboring in the fields all day. The carved benches Sheila remembers are original to the church and nailed to the floor. Today’s visitors can also see holes in the floor of the original sanctuary, arranged in the shape of an African prayer symbol known to some as a BaKongo Cosmogram.
During the Civil War, FABC was a stop on the Underground Railroad and housed runaway slaves in a 4-foot space beneath the floorboards. Not only is it a symbol of birth, life, death and rebirth, but the holes also allowed the runaways to breathe.
Decades later, the church would be a meeting place for civil rights activists, and several pastors — Sheila’s father included — would participate in marches and sit-ins. More than a place of worship or a safe haven, First African has been fundamental in the narrative of Savannah’s black community.
“First African is much more than a church building,” said Sheila, who lives in Atlanta. “It was built by slaves, it was part of the Underground Railroad, and it served as the foundation for the civil rights movement in Savannah. It tells the story of who we are as a people.”
A legacy of community
First African Baptist Church recently completed restorations on the 160-year-old building ahead of the congregation’s 242nd birthday this month. Renovations, which include repairing the bell tower, replacing stucco, repainting, recarpeting, and fixing water-damaged ceilings, total nearly $600,000, according to the Rev. Thurmond Tillman, the 17th and current pastor of the church.
To celebrate the anniversary as well as the project’s completion, FABC held a four-day series of events, including a movie night at the FAB Delaware auditorium, a recognition event for former First Families, and of course, a 242nd anniversary worship experience on Sunday morning.
Leading the anniversary planning committee is Ethel Boles, a Savannah native and daughter of the Rev. William Franklin Stokes II, the 15th pastor of FABC.
“We especially want to highlight the pastors’ families, because many times, pastors are only as good as their support at home,” Boles said. “We’ve asked the young members of the church to use social media to find any former members who may have moved away.”
Sheila Jackson and her siblings were invited, along with family members of pastors Emanuel King Love, Ralph Mark Gilbert and more.
“We’re especially honored to have Elorie S. Gilbert, Dr. Gilbert’s widow, speak during the celebrations,” Tillman said. “As president of the Savannah branch of the NAACP, he is widely regarded as the father of the Savannah civil rights campaign.”
Church connections with the local and national civil rights movements is one of its most touted accomplishments. When Ralph Mark Gilbert died in 1956, it was the Rev. Jackson who stepped in to continue that tradition. Sheila recently donated a picture of her father with Martin Luther King Jr. to the church’s museum.
Her older sister Marilynn Jackson Johnson remembers their home being a meeting place for the black elite. “Our house was always a sea of black suits, black cars, and camera crews.”
Boles and her brother William Franklin Stokes III, however, recall their father’s involvement with the movement coming with a price. In addition to being the pastor at FABC, Stokes was on the NAACP Board of Directors and the NAACP Education Committee, and often participated in marches and sit-ins.
“As children, we weren’t always privy to the harshness of the era,” Boles said. “But I do recall my father being beaten up at one point. A group of guys jumped him as he left a meeting about desegregating the lunch counters downtown.”
“He came home all tattered and torn,” Stokes added. “But what was so humorous was that he said he’d won.”
Even in the face of such threats, the FABC leaders and their families continued to answer to the needs of their community — whether that meant marching or feeding the homeless.
In 1990, the church founded George Leile Visions Inc., a nonprofit named after the church’s first pastor, to continue the work of service and evangelism in the Savannah area. GLV programming includes job-readiness training, financial assistance for housing and utilities, and community grocery distribution.
According to Tillman, this sort of community outreach is required.
“That’s mandated by Scriptures,” he said. “‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink …’ That’s Matthew, Chapter 25.”
Ethel Boles put it more plainly.
“God sent his disciples to impact the world,” she said. “And the only way to impact society is to get outside of the walls of the church.”