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Preserving Arkansas's Black Church History

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  • Courtney Bradford, M.A.
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“Black churches are very powerful forces in the African American community and always have been. Because religion has been that one place where you have an imagination that no one can control. And so, as long as you know that you are a human being and nobody can take that away from you, then God is that reality in your life that enables you to know that.” – James Cone

The History

The history of the black church, like the story of its members is one of strength, resilience and responsibility to one’s own community. Many churches in the south were founded by former slaves wanting to practice their religion in congregations that looked like and catered to them. Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Little Rock is no different. Organized by former slaves after leaving First Baptist Church and led by Rev. Robert Woods, “The Mount” – as it is affectionately called by its members – met in Woods’ home in 1876. Shortly after that, a small frame building was erected on the rear lot of 1412 Ringo. That same year Rev. Peter Hatcher would become pastor.

In 1880, a large frame church was erected with a large bell tower and high steeple. At the time of construction, it was considered the largest Baptist church in the city of Little Rock. The building was later destroyed by a fire of an unknown cause.

This tragedy did not stop the congregation from continuing to flourish. From 1885-1900 the church went through a period of crisis where the church labored to establish infrastructure, organize a choir and purchased a reed organ, along with hiring an organist.

In 1900, Dr. Doctor Buford Gaines of North Carolina served as pastor for 46 years until his death in 1946. During this time, the congregation purchased the property and moved to its current location at 1400 South Ringo. Dr. Gaines was a medical doctor, profound scholar and major force in Little Rock. Two years before becoming pastor of Mount Pleasant, he wrote “Racial Possibilities as indicated by the Negroes of Arkansas,” a directory of “who’s who” in the Arkansas black community.

“Nothing is characteristic of the greatness and industry of the people of Little Rock more than the many well-constructed and handsomely furnished churches and nothing shows appreciation of liberty more than the crowding of these spacious buildings on days of worship.”

The church is the center of the African American community. It is not only a place of worship, but a place where you can learn to be an orator or a chef and receive love and guidance, among other benefits. Some of our nation’s greatest leaders, singers, musicians, etc., have roots within the church, and I am no different. It has always been an active force in the community. It is a place for growth and support, especially when it was needed the most, like during the Civil Rights Movement. Rev. J. C. Crenshaw was very integral in making sure that Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church stayed involved in the movement. Several activists have visited, including Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy. Members of the past and present congregation have membership in the NAACP, the Urban League and fraternal organizations.

I am a part of the fourth generation of my family to attend Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, Religion was emphasized as being a very important part of our daily lives. As a child, I would be very excited to attend to Sunday school with my Grandmother, Thelma Preston Carter, where she led a class and was a ‘bible scholar.’ She was an active member in her church for over 70 years. She made sure that my siblings and I were also active. When she died in 2018, she was the oldest member.

Preserving the Story

A two-story education building was constructed under the leadership of Rev. Wesley E. Hayes, who was also a Principal of the Consolidated White River Academy in Brinkley, Arkansas. In 1968, the building was re-dedicated in his honor as the Wesley E. Hayes Educational Building. The new, current sanctuary was also dedicated at that time. I spent countless hours in the education building attending Sunday school, conducting meetings and rehearsing for programs. Today, it serves as a host to weekly bible studies and home to the Acie and Frances Johnson Heritage Museum, a unique feature not found in many places of worship.

The purpose of the museum was to preserve pieces of “the old church” and, up until that point, the Johnsons had done so. I grew up admiring them for their hard work and dedication to the church and the community. I was especially fond of Mrs. Johnson, who emphasized the importance of proper etiquette skills, being well put together and carrying yourself with respect. Like Mrs. Johnson, my grandmother would also be well put together. How lucky was I to have had such excellent role models? I can without a doubt say that growing up at Mount Pleasant and being involved in Girl Scouts, the Youth department, Mission work and singing in the choir prepared me to be the woman I am today.

When deciding on what to write for my master’s thesis in 2012, I remembered the treasures that were housed in the Hayes Building. I returned to the museum.

At the entrance is a plaque that reads:

This museum is dedicated in honor of Deacon Acie and Sister Frances Johnson because of their service and giving as dedicated Christians, educators, and philanthropists. They have gone above and beyond the call of duty in serving and giving to others. Sister Frances Johnson helped collect and compile many of the items in our museum. Lord grant that all who see this statement will be inspired to serve you as faithfully as the Johnsons.”

At that time, the congregation was 139 years old, and some of the artifacts were over 100 years old, including stained glass from the previous church building constructed in 1900 and a Baptist State Sunday School Convention Certificate dating from the late 1800s. I saw a need to help formally organize the collection and to preserve it as a website for everyone to see. For me, what better way to honor those that came before me and the church by taking the Johnson’s preservation efforts a step further? The project is one that I plan to revisit and further develop.

It is so very important that we preserve the history of the black churches for generations to come. For, without it, we would be nothing.

Today, Rev. James L. Slater is the pastor of Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church. Like the ones that came before him, he and his congregation continue the work of being a beacon of hope to the community.

About the author:Courtney Bradford, M.A. is the Curator of Collections at Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. Her background is in anthropology, African and African American studies and public history.