First Baptist Church, Hampton

The original sanctuary of First Baptist Church in Hampton built around 1888. (Courtesy of First Baptist Church / February 3, 2012)

Like most blacks in the pre-Civil War South, the African-Americans of this old colonial town had few choices when it came to worship.
    Enslaved or free, illiterate or learned, they crowded shoulder to shoulder in the rear balconies of the white churches, forced there by laws that barred them from gathering by themselves. And despite outnumbering their white brethren by 9 to 1 in such places as Hampton Baptist Church, they had little say over how they practiced their faith.
    Those long years of silence and submission came to an end, however, with the landmark upheaval that rocked this historic town first - and then spread through the Confederacy - during the Civil War.
    Founded by a pioneering band of free and enslaved blacks, one of the first independent African-American churches born in the conflict between North and South rose from the ashes of a place that had been abandoned and burned by its rebellious white population. And so deeply did the roots of First Baptist Church take hold in this seemingly unpromising soil that its legacy can still be felt nearly 150 years later.
    "I don't know how they viewed sitting in the 'Negro pews' back then. But the fact is that they did fill the balcony. They wanted a place to worship," former Hampton University historian and church member William Wiggins says.
    "But there was always this longing for a church of their own where they could worship in their own way. And when the war gave them the chance, they took it right away."
    Few Southern locales had a black population more prepared to exploit a white power vacuum - and the crowds of slaves seeking asylum behind Union lines - than Hampton.
    More than 200 free African-Americans lived here in 1860, says historian Robert Engs, author of a groundbreaking study of Civil War Hampton called "Freedom's First Generation." And many were literate and skilled property owners.
    Among them was Thomas Peake, husband of pioneering free black teacher Mary Peake, who had died in 1862 after founding one of the first schools to teach the town's burgeoning numbers of runaway "contraband" slaves.
    Also prominent was free black preacher William B. Taylor, a carpenter who not only had purchased his own freedom by hiring out his own time but also bought his wife and daughter.
    For many years before the war, Taylor had served as the de facto head of Hampton's "colored Baptist Church," where he'd earned permission to perform nominal marriages between slaves. He'd also won fame as a "fiery exhorter," practicing his oratorical skills at the 1856 dedication of Williamsburg's black First Baptist Church as well as in clandestine worship meetings held in and around Hampton and surrounding Elizabeth City County.
    In his audiences were many literate, self-employed slaves who hoped to imitate Taylor's example.
    "Hampton was very different - almost cosmopolitan in some ways - compared to other places in the South, and the blacks here were very different, too," Wiggins says.
    "They had more opportunities and experiences here because whites exerted less control - and they built upon this ready-made foundation very quickly after whites fled the growing Union presence at Fort Monroe."
    Meeting first in the ruins of Hampton in 1863, the congregation soon began building in the Pee Dee section of town on land obtained from the daughter and son-in-law of free black Revolutionary War hero Cesar Tarrant.
    They moved to a new and much larger structure on North King Street not long after the war ended, providing more than 1,000 members with not only spiritual guidance, but also a pathway to political power and economic independence.
    During the Reconstruction Era, Deacon Thomas Peake won posts as deputy sheriff, school trustee and head of the county poorhouse. Deacon R.M. Smith served as Commissioner of Revenue and Deacon Isaiah Lyons sat in the state senate.
    Sister Harriet Taylor co-founded the United Order of Tents as the nation's oldest fraternal benevolent group for black women. She later was buried alongside her husband - the charismatic and widely admired Rev. Taylor - in the graveyard of the town's most prominent white church.
    Pastor Richard Spiller, similarly, played a leading role in the Republican Party. He helped establish the People's Savings and Loan Association - which financed hundreds of black homes - in the church's basement.