Standing along the same side of Main Street, just blocks apart, are two Baptist churches—one with a historically African-American congregation, the other historically white. On Sunday mornings, the two congregations seem to share little beyond a common faith, but their common history is a little-told story and one that reflects the growth and change that has marked Farmville’s rich history.
The two churches—First Baptist and Farmville Baptist—share a common ancestor in nearby Sharon Baptist Church, which today stands on Green Bay Road. In 1831, several members of the Sharon congregation formed a new, more evangelical church in downtown Farmville they called First Baptist. Notably, among the founding members were prominent white Baptist minister Daniel Witt, and Sam and Phil White, two free African-Americans.
The Whites, most likely first cousins, resided on Israel Hill, a historic community of free African-Americans just west of Farmville founded in 1810. Even as free men, the African-American residents of Israel Hill were denied many of the rights their white counterparts enjoyed, but they could own land and sue in civil court. The cousins prospered, earning reputations as earnest, principled individuals—the very values that led them and other free African-Americans to embrace the evangelical Baptist faith of the original First Baptist Church.
The story of Farmville Baptist and First Baptist mirrors a story told across the country, especially in the South: that faith and history, while constantly evolving, is woven tightly together.Dr. Larissa Smith Fergeson
The church built their first house of worship in 1836 at the corner of Main and Fourth streets, but in just twenty years outgrew the building. In 1855, they moved a few blocks north into a new structure, where Farmville Baptist Church currently stands. The original building was turned into a boys’ school and served as a hospital during the Civil War.
After the war, African-Americans across the South withdrew from white-dominated churches to form their own congregations, a phenomenon that split the White family. Phil White’s son Curtis remained a member of majority white Farmville Baptist Church, while his brother Caesar left to become a founding trustee of the new majority black Baptist Church. In 1867, that congregation bought the old building at Main and Fourth and reclaimed the name First Baptist Church.
With a common ancestor and common purpose, two distinct congregations emerged on Main Street in Farmville. The story of Farmville Baptist and First Baptist mirrors a story told across the country, especially in the South: that faith and history, while constantly evolving, is woven tightly together.
About the Author
Dr. Larissa Smith FergesonAssociate Provost and Professor; 20th-century American history, African-American history, History of the U.S. South, Virginia History