Wheat Street Baptist Church
The Wheat Street Baptist Church is a historic church located in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta,Georgia. This historical location is adjacent to the Martin Luther King, Jr historical district. Established just a few years after the Civil war ended, it served as a spiritual, civil, and social beacon for the African American community. Under the leadership of Reverend William Holmes Borders the church became the largest and wealthiest African American church in the United States. Borders was a well known civil leader and was very passionate in reaching out to the oppressed. His influence changed segregation laws and provided economic growth and opportunity for the black community.
Backstory and Context
Wheat Street church was founded in 1869 when a group of parishioners from First Street Baptist wanted a church that was in closer proximity to their neighborhood. Originally Mt. Pleasant Church, it was moved to the present location after the "Great Fire of Atlanta" destroyed the original building in 1917. Throughout the years the church had seven pastors, but Reverend William Holmes Borders brought a vast knowledge of financial stability and spiritual profoundness to the church. His ideas brought prosperity and opportunity to a community in need.
Reverend Borders was a well known and influential civil rights leader. When he became the pastor in 1937, the church was in debt with a declining congregation. Under Borders' leadership, the debt was settled in just a few years and the congregation grew exponentially. While the elderly members were opposed to it, Holmes believed in reaching out to the community in all places and often recruited members in places such as taverns and pool halls. Through Borders' efforts the church became a light of hope and connected a community who had faced great adversity and economic depression.
The community faced a blight when a freeway project split the neighborhood in two. The church responded by creating a credit union in 1956 to give African Americans economic opportunity they had never been granted. Later a charitable organization was founded to provide affordable housing for the elderly and single families. This innovative approach led to economic growth and black entrepreneurism. By 1999 the church had 33 million dollars in real-estate holdings and became one of the wealthiest African American churches in the country.
In 1957, Borders and other black ministers boarded a city bus and took seats in the front. When they refused to move to the back, the driver returned the bus to the barn. This event had been scripted and planned. The group notified Mayor Harfsfield of the planned event and asked for his support in facilitating a peaceful arrest. Atlanta's buses remained segregated for another two years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the ministers, ending one of the most symbolic features of Atlanta's Jim Crow social system. Borders was also instrumental in the hiring of Atlanta's first black police officers in the 1940s. His unorthodox approach and achievements made waves throughout the community and he was regarded as one of the best administrators and orators in black history. He remained an influential leader until his death in 1993.
Hatfield, Edward A. William Holmes Borders (1905-1993). New Georgia Encyclopedia. December 13, 2013. Accessed July 28, 2017. http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/william-holmes-borders-1905-1993.
Schott-Bresler, Kayla. Wheat Street Baptist Church [Atlanta] (1869- ). BlackPast.Org. Accessed 7/28/2017. http://www.blackpast.org/.