One of our city’s oldest and most important institutions this spring is celebrating a significant milestone. The Ninth Street Baptist Church is 150 years old, and the congregation is celebrating with a week of festivities kicking off March 13. To honor this institution, we look back at some of the significant events that have taken place within its walls over the past 150 years.
Ninth Street Baptist is one of four black churches from Lawrence’s earliest days, and one of two, along with St. Luke’s AME at Ninth and New York streets, that remain today.
When the church was founded by the New England Emigrant Aid Society, it was known as Second Missionary Baptist Church and members met on the upper floor of a hardware store between Sixth and Seventh Streets on Massachusetts Street.
It moved to its present location in 1865 after the lot was purchased for a mere $1,168. It became Warren Street Baptist Church, a name it kept for close to 50 years, until the city changed the names of its east-west streets to numbers. Warren Street became Ninth Street, and the church followed suit.
The church changed more than its name between 1910 and 1930. During this period, the tower was added on the building’s southeast corner, electricity was installed and the basement was remodeled. Stained glass windows were also donated. Delmar white, Ninth Street’s current pastor, said the windows were given to the church by Kansas University students. “There has always been an important connection between the church and the university,” he says.
“The church was important,” said Deborah Dandridge, collections librarian at Spencer Research Library, “because there was no place for African-Americans to meet at KU.”
But the history of Ninth Street Baptist Church is more than the history of the building. It is, of course, the history of its members, and the church played a pivotal role in the most sacred events of its members’ lives — the place for baptisms, marriages and funerals.
It was where Willie Ophelia Mitchell, a teacher at Lincoln School in North Lawrence, was baptized in 1892. She recalled the experience in 1977 for an oral history project and remembered being told to put pebbles in her jacket pockets to keep it from floating to the surface when she was immersed.
Ninth Street was where Josephine White, a long-time worker at KU’s Pi Beta Phi sorority, was married in 1931.
And it was where George “Nash” Walker, one of the most famous vaudeville stars and the first African-American to bring an all-black show to Broadway, had his funeral in 1911.
The Jan. 16, 1911, edition of the Lawrence Daily Journal called the crowd at the church impressive and the flowers magnificent: “With the Warren Street Baptist church filled to overflowing with both white and colored people with the full impressive ceremonies of the Masonic Lodge and the gorgeousness of magnificent floral tributes …”
Those flowers also made an impression on a young Langston Hughes, who remembered having his hand slapped during the funeral “because it was not polite for a child to point,” he wrote in his 1940 autobiography, “The Big Sea.”
Hughes also wrote of the church’s significance not just for its members but for all of Lawrence’s African-American community.
“The focal point of Sunday, apart from church services and the Sunday school, became the forum of the Warren Street Baptist Church,” Hughes wrote. “There, university students and talented townsfolk gathered to sing, and play classical music, recite poetry, read original essays and other compositions, and discuss the affairs of the day, especially as they affected The Race.”
Ethel Moore, born in 1889 in Lawrence, who was another participant in the oral history project, remembered one special visitor at Ninth Street, writer and scholar, W.E.B. Du Bois, founding member of the NAACP and editor for its newspaper, The Crisis.
“The (first) time I heard him it was at Ninth Street, and I was impressed by his sort of aloofness,” Moore told the interviewer. “I can see him speaking now, and he seemed so aloof, just like that, and kind of look over you like he was — you were there, but I see you and I don’t see you.”
Souls and lives
The forums exemplify Ninth Street’s role in the African-American community, for church leaders’ concerns often went beyond salvation and extended into the economic, social and political lives of their members. KU professor Dorothy Pennington has studied the history and cultural role of Lawrence’s black churches, and in her 1982 monograph she wrote that “discrimination caused black churches to assume a symbolic role in meeting the needs of blacks.”
Not only did they meet the need for status and recognition and provide leadership opportunities, according to Pennington, they offered “self-esteem, social and spiritual acceptance, and a space blacks could call their own,” she wrote.
Although Lawrence’s history is one as a haven for African-Americans, the city had more than its share of racial unrest during the Civil Rights era, and Ninth Street Baptist, along with St. Luke’s AME, played a significant role in the movement.
On Aug. 25, 1960, the executive board of the NAACP met at Ninth Street, according to The Topeka Plaindealer, where members discussed the organization’s upcoming convention in Topeka. Sessions at the regional meeting included information on voter registration and the effectiveness of sit-ins.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that the next year, students at KU staged a sit-in at Chancellor Clarke Wescoe’s office protesting racially discriminatory practices by landlords.
On July 22, 1963, the NAACP organized a Freedom March on Massachusetts Street that started at St. Luke’s AME and ended at the Douglas County Courthouse. Between 275 and 300 people turned out for the demonstration, which was meant to bring attention to poor housing and inadequate job opportunities for Lawrence’s African-Americans. Ninth Street’s the Rev. Frank Brown was named in the newspaper as one of the individuals leading the march.
KU students again staged a sit-in in 1965, attempting to end segregation by the university’s fraternities and sororities. When police arrested them and took them to the Douglas County jail, local pastors bailed them out.
The times were changing, and as society evolved, so did the culture of Ninth Street Baptist. A 1976 Journal-World article reported on the installation of a new painting of Jesus in the sanctuary by local artist Dennis Helm.
“Behind the painting lies the story of changing times,” wrote Journal-World reporter Allen Torrey, “not just the obvious switch from a white to a black Christ but perhaps as well the passing of a segment of black church life that goes back a long time in Lawrence.”
The painting was commissioned by the church’s Queen Esther club, celebrating its 63rd year. Cordelia Mitchell, who spoke to Torrey, said that the painting was being given to the church as a “parting gesture” since group membership was dwindling because young people weren’t joining it.
Through all the changes, Ninth Street Baptist Church goes on, making a positive impact on its members and the greater Lawrence community.
Perhaps the secret to its survival is its role in the sacred and the social lives of its members. Karen Presswood, member since 2001, said she enjoys the “friendliness and warmth of the people,” adding that the pastor is also key.
“It’s the way he preaches the word,” she said. “He makes it relevant to what is going on in the world today.”