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Baptists divided in wake of slavery have a reunion

Two congregations that had not shared a church roof since 1865, come together for the first time in 137 years.

By MELIA BOWIE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2003


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[Times photo: Ken Helle]
Rosetta Judge, 90, a member of Beulah Baptist, said the reunion of the churches was "kind of like I'm coming home. I'm coming home to fellowship."
TAMPA -- Sarah Robertson made sure to arrive early Sunday night at the First Baptist Church on Kennedy Boulevard.

For the first time in 137 years, the First Baptist congregation would worship with members of Beulah Baptist Institutional Church, founded by former slaves who once sat in the First Baptist balcony.

In all of Robertson's 86 years, not once had she set foot inside First Baptist.

"I always wanted to see (what it looked like) whenever we passed by," Robertson said.

Inside, church pews gleamed, the stained glass sparkled, and the choir's hymns echoed beneath a brightly lit balcony and ornate cathedral ceilings.

"It's beautiful," she said.

Hundreds crowded the downtown church Sunday for the special commemorative service.

It was last August that the Rev. James Favorite of Beulah Baptist was perusing files to be archived, and discovered the all-black church, founded in 1865, was started with the support and funding of First Baptist.

He mulled over what to do with the information and ultimately called First Baptist's minister, the Rev. Jim Knight, who was excited about the idea of a reunion and suggested it be held in February.

Committees were formed at both churches and began organizing last year.

"After 137 years there had been no real contact," Favorite said.

Founded in 1859 at the corner of Twiggs and Tampa streets, First Baptist began in a small frame house where slave owners came with their servants to worship.

Slaves sat in the balcony; their owners down below.

After the Civil War and with help from First Baptist, the freed slaves founded Beulah Baptist Institutional Church in 1865. It became the first black Baptist church in Tampa.

The black and white congregations split.
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[Times photo: Ken Helle]
Kloderlyn Desir, 6, looks around Sunday. Another reunion service will be at Beulah Baptist.
There was some interaction in later years, said Sonja Rounds, who attended First Baptist as a child and traveled from North Carolina to attend the service.

The "Rev. A. Leon Lowry (who was pastor at Beulah Baptist for 40 years) knew our pastor," she said.

"In the 1950s they were friends. We didn't realize it then, we were kids, but they were trying to set the tone."

Change was slow in coming, though.

"First Baptist was a beautiful congregation but people went along with the times," said Rosetta Judge, 90, and a member of Beulah Baptist for 61 years.

Now, another reunion is set for next February at Beulah.

A pulpit exchange between the ministers, joint choir performances and other programs are being discussed.

Sunday, in a green suit crowned with a black pillbox hat, Judge sat with other elders from Beulah Baptist and sang as the service started.

"I worked here for five years in the 1950s cleaning the church and working in the kitchen," said Judge. Now, "it's kind of like I'm coming home. I'm coming home to fellowship."

The two choirs sang together. Two congregations prayed together. They clapped and cried out, held hands and rejoiced side by side.

And above their heads, the balcony was closed.

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