City churches were designed to be walkable and serve their immediate neighborhoods, but as historically working-class or African American neighborhoods gentrify and longtime residents move away, commuting by car rather than walking to church becomes far more common for those keeping ties to their religious communities. This is the case for the South End’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, a congregation that was founded by formerly enslaved people and Southern migrants.
Church closures and desacralizations are increasingly common in American cities, and many large, historic churches in Boston have become exemplars of this trend. Historically African American congregations have been particularly vulnerable to the societal and financial pressures that force the closure and sale of church buildings in major cities—population shifts, mounting maintenance costs, and rising real estate prices.
The church thrived for more than 150 years in the South End, but by late 2019 the mounting costs of repairs the building needed had far outstripped the congregation’s financial means. In February 2020, the congregation held their last worship service in the building they had occupied for the majority of their history. Just prior to the pandemic, the church was put up for sale and the congregation’s leadership began hunting for a new home.
The history of Black churches in Boston is a story of migration, density, and diversity. Since the 19th century, migration from the South and immigration from the Caribbean shaped Boston’s religious landscape, creating dense and culturally mixed neighborhoods where Black Bostonians worshipped in stand-alone church buildings, homes, and storefronts. The story of Ebenezer Baptist church is the story of Black Boston.
In the beginning…
Boston’s first Black neighborhood formed on the north side of Beacon Hill, where Black Bostonians worked as domestic laborers for wealthy whites and lived in proximity to docks and markets. African Americans lived in Beacon Hill as far back as the 1750s, and by 1830 one-third of the city’s Black population of 1,900 lived there.
It was in Beacon Hill where the first Black independent churches in Boston were founded. Black Baptists seceded from predominantly white churches like the First and Second Baptist churches of Boston, where they had faced discrimination and segregated seating. In 1805, they organized the African Meeting House, also known as the First African Baptist Church, the first Black church in Boston. Completed in 1806, it is the oldest existing Black church building in the nation.
By the 1840s, as the Black population in the neighborhood reached 2,000, there were five Black churches in Beacon Hill and the West End, as Black congregants continued to withdraw from white congregations and as Black churches experienced internal schisms. These churches include Union United Methodist Church in 1818, Columbus Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church in 1838, Charles Street A.M.E. Church in 1833, and Twelfth Baptist Church established in 1848. These early churches were important centers for abolitionists, political organizing, and community support.
By 1870, Massachusetts-born African Americans made up a minority of Boston’s Black population due to increasing migration from the South. In the 1880s, the majority of Southern migrants lived in the South End where they could secure housing near the hotels around Copley and Park Squares and railroad yards on Boylston Street where many found employment. By 1900, as people arrived from Virginia, North Carolina, DC, Jamaica, and Barbados, only 25% of Black Bostonians were born in the state. Black migrants brought with them different worship styles, religious traditions, and community networks, transforming Boston’s religious landscape.
Long way from Long Wharf
As Black people moved into the South End and Lower Roxbury in the late 19th and early 20th century, so did many of their established churches. At the same time, many new congregations sprang up to accommodate the beliefs and worship styles of the new immigrants. Ebenezer Baptist church, the first and oldest church founded by Southern migrants and formerly enslaved people, was one of these churches. It started as a small gathering of like-minded individuals in a home, and then became an institutional mainstay in the South End, surviving in and serving the neighborhood from 1871 to 2020, nearly 150 years.
In 1847, a ship carrying 66 formerly enslaved people, ranging from 12 months to 75 years old in age, arrived in Long Wharf in Boston. They had sailed from Virginia and represented the entire workforce of a plantation owned by Carter H. Edloe in Prince George County. Edloe’s will contained orders that upon his death the enslaved people on his plantation should be manumitted and promised that he would pay for their transportation to any free state, providing each a sum of $50. When he died in 1844, the executor of the estate only delivered $15 and for three years delayed their departure from Virginia. With the help of a lawyer they fought to make sure the will was honored and departed for Massachusetts in 1847.
One of the passengers was named Peter Randolph, who was 27 at the time of his departure. Randolph would become the first minister of Ebenezer Baptist in Boston and would also go on to become pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. Randolph described their arrival in Boston in his book, From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit: The Autobiography of Rev. Peter Randolph; The Southern Question Illustrated and Sketches of Slave Life (1893): “It was soon noised abroad through the city, that a cargo of emancipated slaves had landed at Long Wharf. A large number of citizens came to the wharf to see the strangers and to congratulate them on their new birth to freedom.” Notables such as the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison were part of this welcoming crew.
In 1868, Ebenezer Baptist began as a prayer meeting that was held in the kitchen of Mrs. Martha Jones, who lived on Ottawa Court in the South End. The founding members were formerly enslaved peoples from Virginia and North Carolina who worked as porters, laborers, waiters, and janitors. Jones “converted one of the court’s apartments into a chapel for services three nights a week,” and they held vibrant services from this domestic-turned-worship space. Their services were so animated that they ruffled the more staid religious sensibilities of Northerners, who referred to the church as the “Jay Bird Tabernacle.”
As one member described their services: “We come together to sing the praises to the Lord, and to Jesus Christ, his son, who came to do us good and to save us, and then we feel so thankful, that we sing the tunes pretty loud, and the ‘glory to God’ comes out very full and strong.”
When they began to exceed the capacity of the rooms on Ottawa Court, the congregation rented a hall on Washington Street for $37.50 a month. It was in 1871, during their time on Washington Street, that the congregation formally established the church. According to an 1897 article in the Boston Globe, church membership was growing so quickly that they needed a bigger space, so they rented a meeting house on Concord Street. During their time on Concord they did not have the necessary pool to conduct baptisms, so the congregation observed their first baptisms at Clarendon Street Baptist Church, a building that was converted to high end condominiums in the 1980s following a fire.
Finally, the congregation found a permanent home when they made a down payment of $5,000 on the large brick church building on West Springfield Street. This building had once belonged to a white Presbyterian congregation.
During his nearly five years as pastor, Randolph saw the congregation grow from six hundred to fourteen hundred congregants. Ebenezer had become one of the largest Black churches in Boston. In 1895, when they held their first baptismal service in the church, 1,600 people came out for the occasion. According to the Boston Globe, during the service “the shouts of the converts had an electrical effect on the congregation … amens, in a spirit of sympathy, were heard on all sides.”
By the end of the 1890s, the congregation was threatening to outgrow its brick church on West Springfield Street, as one founding member, John L. Swan, told reporters in 1897: “It is true that our church is becoming too small for our congregation, but I am in favor of staying here until we see positively that we can do better.”
In the 1890s, the congregation seemed wary of the machinations of the market and real estate agents, as Swan put it: “The wants of real estate men have no influence over me. I recognize only God in this thing, and I am not going to move until God says move, for it was he who attracted us here, and if it is his will He [sic] alone shall move us. God is a friend of my race, but real estate dealers or brokers here are not.”
Both the real estate market in Boston and Ebenezer Baptist church have changed markedly in the approximately 130 years since those words were spoken. Gentrification came to the South End in the late 20th century, pushing members of Ebenezer’s congregation out from the neighborhood into other, more affordable, areas in and outside the city. The congregation began to slowly shrink and those who did faithfully make the journey back every Sunday found it harder and harder to find a place to park during services.
The maintenance of the building started to outstrip the means of the congregation. Eventually, according to parishioners who spoke for this article, an inspection concluded that the building was structurally unsound and therefore unsafe to continue using without major, and costly, renovations. Taking into account the accessibility problems the church’s historic location already posed for most of its congregants, Ebenezer’s pastor and leadership team decided the best course was to sell the building and find another location that would better serve their needs.
Pressure and preservation
Ebenezer Baptist is not the first church, nor is it even the first historically Black church, in the South End to be sold to a developer. Concord Baptist Church sold its building and moved into a former synagogue in Milton in 2011. Also in 2011, the New Hope Baptist Church sold its building and moved to a former Catholic church in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boston. Both buildings are now luxury condos.
“A Black church moving out of a neighborhood they have been in for a century or more is increasingly happening in the US,” Dr. Richard Newton, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Alabama, said in an interview.
In other cities, historic Black churches have been put up for sale, resulting in a variety of new uses as well as a variety of reactions from their home communities. Philadelphia’s First African Baptist Church was sold and converted into a whimsical boutique Airbnb-style hotel when its congregation could no longer afford repairs on its aging limestone Gothic Revival church.
In Los Angeles, the publisher of Rolling Stone magazine bought the former First Baptist Church of Venice in 2017 with plans to convert it to a home for his family. He has since sold the building and residents have been holding sit-ins and lobbying the new owner and local cultural heritage commission to preserve the building. In September, they succeeded in having the building designated a historic-cultural monument.
Slowly, the historic and cultural importance and relevance of Black churches is being recognized by preservation and philanthropic organizations. In July, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced a grant of $3 million toward the preservation of Black historic sites, including four churches.
But there was no community outcry or last-minute financial reprieve when Ebenezer Baptist held its final service in the former church and processed from the building for a final time in February 2020. In interviews given at the final service, church leaders focused on the future of the congregation, while acknowledging the pain that the sale of the building would cause. “It’s not a closing,” Ebenezer’s current pastor, Carl Thompson, told the Globe. “It’s just a transition.”
Deacon Earl Jackson, who spoke in a nonofficial capacity, lived in the South End when he joined the church several decades ago. He spoke fondly about the final service. “It was heartbreaking but exhilarating at the same time. … It was fabulous” to see so many old members of the congregation and have the mayor attend, Jackson said.
Not everyone in the community was as positive about the sale of the church as its leadership. Many current and former members who were contacted for this article were in mourning and declined to speak about the fate of the building.
“Some people were married in that church, or they were baptized, or their parents went there. … People have memories in there. … It was heartbreaking,” Terrance Woolfork, a member of the congregation since 2012, said in an interview. He himself held his mother’s funeral in the church.
Woolfork wishes there were more discussions and effort made to find funding for the church’s needs, and said that his fantasy is to win the lottery in order to repurchase and renovate the building. He ultimately backs the decision of the leadership, but that doesn’t mean the loss of the building hits him any less.
“It is going to be hard to drive down that street,” Woolfork added. It is not just the personal loss that the sale of the building represents, or even the loss felt by the congregation, but the loss of a historic Black Boston neighborhood. “Part of history is gone. They took Concord Baptist Church from us in the South End. … This is the last church in the South End that people could just walk to. … There are no Black, African American churches in that neighborhood. The character of the neighborhood has changed. It is not our neighborhood.”
Born and raised in the South End right around the corner from the church, Yulanda Sunshine Miller attended Ebenezer since she was a little girl. Her mother and grandmother were both members of the church and have since passed away, but she is grateful she was able to hold their funerals in the old church building.
“When you think of the memories you have of the church, it soothes the soul,” Miller said. She’s resigned to the fact that the building will become luxury condos. “Is it sad? Yes,” she said. “If you don’t have the money to sustain [the building] or make the improvements, what else can you do?”
Like Woolfork, Miller expects that seeing the building as condos will be difficult. “It will be devastating for me to walk by and it is completely different than it is right now.” However, Miller only has good wishes for the building’s new inhabitants. “God bless anyone who wants to live there. I can only think that only happy things would happen to them in a place where so much religion” was sustained, she said.
Though he remembers it as a beautiful space, Deacon Jackson said it wouldn’t be hard to see the building being used for another purpose. “We are a capitalist nation. … I don’t have any hard feelings against it becoming whatever it becomes.”
At the same time, he wishes that development in Boston wasn’t only geared toward the luxury market.
“In the South End, and all over the city really, they’re not building these condos and rentals for poor people,” Jackson added. “I wish that there could be a building, housing affordable for poor people. That would be the right thing to do, but they’re not doing that anywhere in the city.”
Pastor Thompson declined to comment for this article. He indicated that he would make one or more other members of the leadership team of the church available for comment but attempts to follow up with him went unanswered.
“As Christians, we believe that the church is not the building, but the people,” Miller said. “Children will be born into the church, and people will die. … Change is always going to come.”
Deacon Jackson is looking forward to worshiping in person at the building they are purchasing in Abington. “We will go in singing a new song. After the pandemic, we as a church will go to a new building,” Jackson said.
On Sept 5, during a livestreamed sermon from the old Ebenezer Baptist Church sanctuary, which the developer has allowed the leadership to continue to access despite its imminent transition, Pastor Thompson channeled Moses leading his people to the promised land.
No doubt aware that some in his congregation were still mourning the old church, Thompson encouraged those listening to “speak victoriously about our church situation.”
“If someone you hear has doubts or pessimism, you speak a victorious optimistic word to that person and tell them that the storm will pass over and we shall land in a place that God has prepared just for us and it will be a glorious, glorious time when we reach that place that the Lord has prepared for us, our place of milk and honey that the Lord is preparing for this congregation.”
Putting cases like that of Ebenezer Baptist into context, Dr. Newton explained, “Black communities who are leaving these spaces will have memories in these spaces, but they will take them with them. Ultimately, as important as having a place, and putting down a state or roots. As important as that is, those are tools and technologies for people to remember, and those memories can come with them.”
“If there is an architectural history to the Black church, it is that we take it with us.”
This article, part of a three-part series, was made possible in part with support from Sacred Writes, a Henry Luce Foundation-funded project hosted by Northeastern University that promotes public scholarship on religion, and was edited in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and DigBoston.
Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada is Assistant Professor of Religion at Kalamazoo College. She is the author of Lifeblood of the Parish: Men and Catholic Devotion in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (NYU Press, 2020) and is editor of the journal Material Religion: The Journal of Art, Objects and Belief. You can follow her work at alyssamaldonadoestrada.com and follow her on twitter @emoprofessor.
Claire Sadar is a freelance journalist covering religion, politics, social justice, and their intersections. You can follow her work at ClaireSadar.com and on twitter @KARepublic.