Richmond's First African Baptist Church traces its roots back to 1780 when enslaved people attended services with their owners. In 1841, white members of the First Baptist Church sold the original church building to its approximately 1,000 African members, both free and enslaved, for $65,000. The original building was replaced in 1876 with a building that is now the Randolph Minor Hall at Virginia Commonwealth University. The current First African Baptist Church is located at 2700 Hanes Ave in northern Richmond.
First African Baptist Church was founded in 1841 and although the law of that time required the white leadership, free and enslaved African Americans served as deacons. Frist African Baptist Church was one of the first churches led by black members in Virginia and the church was an anchor for the African American community prior to the Civil War. The church leaders had to be careful to avoid the appearance of radicalism and laws prohibited African Americans from gathering or holding meetings in public without whites being present after several slave rebellions were connected to black congregations.
In 1867, aDr. James Holmes became the first black minister of the church. Under Dr. James Holmes’ ministry, 5,800 people were baptized including John Jasper, Henry “Box” Brown, and Maggie L. Walker. Under Dr. Holmes leadership, the original white church building was torn down and a new building was completed in 1876. Pastor Holmes passed away in November 1900 after 32 years of service, and the church was draped in black for 30 days to pay homage to Holmes.
On the night of June 2, 1904, the church was almost destroyed by a fire that began in a neighboring theater. Pastor W. T. Johnson said, “I want to thank God that this house of worship was spared to us. I would, were the organist of the church here, hold a service of Thanksgiving at this time.”2 A fireman at the scene was also an organist, and he performed a concert on the spot. The organ remained in the church until the church moved in the fifties.
The building was sold to the Medical College of Virginia for $60,000 in 1955, and the congregation relocated to northern Richmond the following year. The old church building was converted into offices and classrooms and is now the Randolph Minor Hall at the Virginia Commonwealth University. Some prominent visitors to the church are Jefferson Davis, who gave his last speech as the President of the Confederacy at the church. The African American educator Booker T. Washington also gave a lecture in this building.