The Portsmouth Pearl
Street view of the Pearl
People's Baptist Church plaque
Backstory and Context
The Portsmouth Pearl was built in 1858 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire by the Free Will Baptist Church congregation. It was initially designed as a meeting house and did not contain a steeple. It was expanded in the late 1860s to include a steeple and an entry bay. The original steeple was reconstructed in the early 1900s and replaced with the current one. The Free Will Baptist Church united with the Middle Street Baptist Church and left the Pearl in 1915. The Pearl is recognized in the state and national historic places registry.
The People’s Baptist Church, the first African-American church in New Hampshire, originated in 1873. The members initially met in private homes throughout the community. In 1889, James F. Slaughter hosted a multidenominational Bible-study in his living quarters that formed the People’s Mission. The congregation relocated to the South Meeting House in 1890. In 1893, it was reorganized and officially recognized as the People’s Baptist Church. Reverend James Randolph served as its first minister. In 1915, the congregation raised money to purchase and relocate to the Pearl becoming the first African-American owned church building in New Hampshire.
The church became the center of the political, social, and spiritual life of Portsmouth’s African-American community. Services and activities offered by the church include care for the sick, fund raising events, and charitable efforts. Many notable public figures gave speeches at the People’s Baptist Church on Pearl Street. On October 26, 1952, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., then a student at Boston University, delivered a sermon titled “Going Forward by Going Backward” at a program hosted at the church. During the event was a performance by a guest choir from Massachusetts, with soloist Coretta Scott. Rev. King and Coretta Scott were united in marriage the next year.
In the 1970s, the congregation reorganized as the New Hope Church and carries the legacy of People’s Baptist Church. The New Hope Church relocated to Peverly Hill Road in 1984 where it is still active today. The building was leased to a French restaurant called 72 Restaurant in 1984. In 2005, the Pearl was sold to Gary Dodds and underwent renovations to update various features and rearranged the interior to resemble the original design. Today, the building is the host of public events, corporate events, and wedding receptions. The Pearl is currently for sale.
Campbell, R. (1970, January 01). The Pearl. Retrieved from http://walkportsmouth.blogspot.com/2012/05/pearl.html
Cunningham, V. People’s Baptist Church, Portsmouth, New Hampshire (1873- ). Retrieved from http://www.blackpast.org/aah/people-s-baptist-church-portsmouth-new-hampshire-1873
Historic former church, The Pearl, for sale. (2014, June 27). Retrieved from http://www.seacoastonline.com/article/20140628/NEWS/406280324
Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail Self-Guided Tour. Retrieved from http://portsmouthhistory.org/portsmouth-black-heritage-trail/self-guided-tour/