I took this photo on a recent bike. Although it’s not a very good one, it is a photo of The 19th Street Baptist Church. I remember at the time I took the photo, however, that I just wanted the street sign and the sign for the church to both be visible in the photo. This was because The 19th Street Baptist Church is located on 16th Street in northwest D.C. Yes, you read that correctly. The 19th Street Baptist Church is located on 16th Street. I initially thought, “It’s a good thing you don’t have to be a mathematician who’s good with numbers to be a Christian.” But then as I thought about it, I was so puzzled that I had to find out the story behind this apparent inconsistency.
The church was originally founded in August of 1839, when the First Colored Church of Washington was organized by a group of Baptist ministers and laypersons, including the Reverend Jeremiah Moore, Rev. Lewis Richards, Rev. Adam Freeman, Rev. William Parkinson, Charles P. Polk, Cephas Fox, Charles Rogers, John Buchan, and Joseph and Sarah Borrows.
The leaders and congregation were previously part of The First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C., which had an interracial congregation where black members worshipped alongside whites. However, similar to other congregations at that time, the church gradually segregated its black members from the white parishioners. Given their discontent with being assigned to the gallery of the First Baptist Church, the black members chose to leave the congregation and establish their own independent church.
The new church then formed a committee, which was authorized to buy a plot of land which was available on the southwest corner of Nineteenth and I Streets, where a house of worship known as the Baptist Church of Christ in Washington was erected. The church was later incorporated as the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, in November of 1870.
The church remained on the corner of 19th and I Streets for over a century, until January of 1975, when it moved to its present location at 4606 Sixteenth Street (MAP) in D.C.’s Crestwood neighborhood. In part to preserve its rich history as the first and oldest black Baptist congregation in the nation’s capitol, it kept the name under which it was incorporated, even after the move.
Since its founding over 175 years ago, the church has figured prominently within the historical and social fabric of D.C.’s African American community, and it continues to do so today.