Since 1976, Black History Month has been recognized as a time to celebrate African American history and to recognize African Americans’ role in United States history, in the United States and around the world. Arkansas boasts rich African American history, and we have many symbols to remind us of this heritage, including the First Missionary Baptist Church in Little Rock, which is the oldest Black church in Arkansas.
The First Missionary Baptist Church, founded by Rev. Wilson Brown in 1845, is considered the oldest Black church in Arkansas. Brown was a self-taught slave minister and, before founding the church, he attended a predominantly white church. Rev. Brown, his owner, Maj. Fields, and an unidentified Baptist minister established what was then called the First Negro Baptist Church. There was no actual building when it was founded, but the congregation met at a brush arbor until the first building was constructed in 1847. The current gothic revival building, constructed in 1883, still stands at 7th Street and Gaines Street in Little Rock.
“A hidden treasure, a beacon light, a bastion of hope and faith - that describes FMBC. Organized by slaves in 1845, placed on the National Register of Historic Places, spiritual home to hundreds over the church's 175 years, that's FMBC,” says Renee Hubbard, a member of the Trustee Board at the First Missionary Baptist Church. “The members of FMBC over the years included slaves, domestics, janitors, doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, postmen, pullman porters, state senators and accomplished business professionals from various career paths. Our legacy of leaders includes a slave who organized the church, a state senator, an unprecedented leader in the National Baptist Convention who served the church for 50 years, was a civil rights activist who was the only African American to speak to the Arkansas State Legislature during the Civil Rights Crisis and was a personal friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. All of the pastors were great preachers and teachers committed to God and dedicated to the members and the mission of the church. Our history is a living, breathing testament to those gone on before, those of us in the now and those who will follow in the future.”
Over the 175 years since its foundation, the First Missionary Baptist Church has witnessed many historical events. The church’s fifth pastor, Rev. Ronald Smith, was very active in the civil rights movement and, in 1954, Smith led a group of ministers to call for the end of segregation in public schools and public spaces. In 1963, the church’s congregation invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak four months before the March on Washington, and King gave the church’s 118th anniversary sermon. Also, in 1990, former Gov. Bill Clinton spoke at the church for its 145th anniversary address shortly before announcing his presidential campaign.
Learn more about the Black church’s history across the nation in “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” with “Episode 2” premiering Wednesday, Feb. 17, at 8 p.m.
About the Author: Lauren Webber is an intern in the Arkansas PBS education department and is double majoring in broadcast journalism and family and consumer sciences at the University of Central Arkansas.