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Historic Black church on West Main gets boost for much-needed repairs

The historic First Baptist Church of Charlottesville, the oldest African American religious community in the city, will be able to make much-needed repairs thanks to a $240,000 grant.

Situated at 623 W Main St., the brick building and humble steeple present a striking contrast to the restaurants, shops and Amtrak station located nearby.

The church was built by its congregation between 1877 and 1883 during a time when this area of the city was home to a large African American community.

According to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, First Baptist’s congregation traces its origins back to 1863 and was part of a larger community from which four African American churches eventually formed.

“Today, First Baptist is one of only two churches that remain in the area,” a news release from the department reads. “During the past 60 years, urban renewal, population growth, development, increased land values and other urban forces have largely displaced the surrounding black communities.”

In recent years, the church also has run into a number of structural and repair issues, according to the Rev. Alvin Edwards, pastor at Mount Zion First African Baptist Church and one of First Baptist’s trustees.

A 2019 report commissioned by the trustees identified severe threats to the building and repairs needed for the roof, chimneys and bell tower, the last of which requires stabilizing.

With declining congregation numbers, Edwards said the church was put in a difficult position.

“We knew significant repairs were needed but we just didn’t have the money to do them,” he said. “But we trusted in God and got to work trying to find solutions.”

Starting in 2012, Edwards and other trustees began the arduous process of learning how to write grants in an effort to obtain funds and keep the building usable for decades to come.

“None of us had experience writing grants, and so that was a complicated experience but one we were all committed to getting right,” he said. “This building serves as a community space for so many other organizations, as well.”

In addition to First Baptist’s congregation, the building’s basement fellowship hall hosts a soup kitchen; meeting space for Alcoholics Anonymous, the Starr Hill Neighborhood Association and the NAACP’s local chapter; an afterschool program; and other charitable initiatives.

By the end of 2017, Edwards said, First Baptist had received some small grants from local organizations but was still in need of funds and was facing the reality that the church might not be usable in the near future.

However, following the congregation’s prayers and hard work, the church was rewarded when the Virginia Department of Historic Resources announced it would be dispersing a $240,000 sub-grant to First Baptist.

According to the release from the department, the funds derive from an African American Civil Rights Grant that the National Park Service awarded the department on behalf of First Baptist Church for proposed repairs.

Edwards said the church currently is consulting on repairs and developing a plan for what the money will be used for. Once the building has been repaired, Edwards said he hopes the church will continue to serve as a community space for decades to come.

“The Lord is good and His hands are all over this,” Edwards said. “We are incredibly thankful that He gave us what is needed.”


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