Court Street Baptist Church

May 4, 2022 | Travel Stories

My adopted grandmother, Fannie Smith Womack (1900-1988) and her mother Rosa Crawford Smith (1865-1945) were both members of Lynchburg’s historic Court Street Baptist Church for their entire lives. My dad grew up singing in the church choir.

The congregation organized in 1843, when the city’s Black Baptists were kicked out of First Baptist Church (run by whites). The new African Baptist Church of Lynchburg met in a converted theater. It was demolished in 1879, after the deaths of eight people during a panic caused by fear of structural collapse. Church members provided the money to buy land at 6th & Court St for a new building. In 1880, it was the largest church in the city, with the tallest spire.

I found information about the church in my grandmother’s things after my dad passed away. I guessed it was her church. We stopped by and got lucky… a group of people were there to unload food for the homeless. The woman in charge had been a member since the 60s and remembered my grandmother well. She offered me a personal tour.

She showed me around the church, sharing its amazing history. You could feel the energy in its rooms. A place built by freed slaves and a part of the local Black community for nearly 180 years, providing encouragement and solace during an oppressive era. She showed me the names etched into the stained glass windows of the 8 women who died. I recorded it all (join my newsletter to hear snippets of audio from the road – link in bio).

Reading a pamphlet about it was one thing, stepping foot inside was another. Being here brought my grandmother and great-grandmother alive in ways I couldn’t grasp before.

I kept thinking of what Joy Barnett said in an episode of the Globetrotter Lounge podcast, explaining why she travels to places important to Black history.

“I think until you’re in a place where a story occurred, you don’t necessarily have all the pieces of it. You don’t know necessarily know the full context.”

Yes. And that’s why I’m traveling my roots.

Photos of church by Will Austin. Portraits: 1. Fannie Smith Womack 2. Rosa Crawford Smith

 

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I’m Lisette Austin, travel podcaster. I am currently traveling to where my ancestors are from – across North America, over to Europe and finally to Africa.

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