Photo: Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms at Antioch Baptist Church North, Twitter
Atlanta is often labeled as a city too busy to hate but the historical facts tell a very different story. There was a time when white terror was so pronounced that Black people were actually afraid to move around the city freely, living confined to a few “colored quarters” in town. The story of Antioch Baptist Church North is one of self determination and Black people making the bold choice to build their own, in the face of terrorism. Their story is very much an American story.
After the Civil War terrorism was still the norm for many Black people. As always, economics was central to the narrative. Many Atlanta businessmen, knowing the desperation that Black people faced, often hired four or five Blacks to work for them — they did so at the collective wage of one white worker. Not only did this further the poverty of Blacks but it also depressed employment for their white counterparts. Poor whites retaliated with violence, routinely. The local press also helped to intensify the conflict, publishing stories that amplified the climate of hostility. For Black people, traveling from their section of town, through white neighborhoods in order to reach a house of worship, could be a death sentence.
In response, “Oscar Young, Miles Crawford, Jordan Beavers, Lem Wright and four other former slaves organized a prayer group, calling themselves the Bethursday Prayer Band — because the “meetin’ be on Thursdays.” Those prayer meetings began to grow, meeting weekly at various homes. In time, they began meeting at a local butcher shop where one of the members worked. In 1895 the group borrowed $200 from the Southern Home Building and Loan Association to purchase its first property, “a dilapidated basement structure” located at 7 Wallace Street. They agreed to pay the loan back at $1.20 per month — a stretch for a band of former slaves with no collateral. Those former slaves, however, managed to pay the loan back in just four years.
Today Antioch’s membership is roughly 14,000. Rev. Cameron Madison Alexander, who pastored the church for over 40 years, passed in December of 2018 but the congregations persists. The story of Antioch Baptist Church North is uniquely American — white terror, Black self determination and persistence. It is a story of faith but also a story about Black economics and independence. It is a story that we would all do well to remember.