The Old Landmark: Third Baptist Church Moves Closer To Historic Status

Last week, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to designate 1399 McAllister St. —better known as Third Baptist Church—as a city landmark. The ordinance will be put to a requisite second vote at the November 14th meeting.

If approved, the measure will travel to Mayor Ed Lee's desk for his signature. If he signs it into law, any future alterations, construction or demolition permit applications relating to 1399 McAllister St. would not be permitted.

Founded more than 160 years ago, the church has always been a home and a platform for community leaders, activists and entertainers, such as W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Josephine Baker, Adam Clayton Powell and Paul Robeson.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Amos C. Brown and Roy Wilkens. | Photo: Third Baptist Church

“In a lot of ways, [Third Baptist] is taken for granted because it’s always been there as a consistent place of advocacy and leadership for the community,” said District 5 Supervisor London Breed.

A congregation member who grew up in the Western Addition near Third Baptist Church, Breed brought the ordinance to the board earlier this year. Supervisors Mark Farrell and Aaron Peskin later signed on as sponsors.

“It’s not just the structure itself,” Breed said. “With the significant decline of the African-American population in San Francisco, it’s important that we preserve and protect the people and institutions that maintain [the community’s] history. Third Baptist is one of those institutions.”

W.E.B. Du Bois speaking to the congregation in 1958. | Photo: Third Baptist Church

In August, the Historic Preservation Commission unanimously voted to recommend landmark designation for Third Baptist Church to the Board of Supervisors, and on September 5th, the body passed a resolution to move forward with the designation, sending it to the Land Use and Transportation Committee, SFWeekly reported.

Last week, all three committee members voted to recommend the ordinance.

A former location of the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco, taken in 1946. | Photo: The San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Public Library

In the 1850s, San Francisco’s black Baptists were relegated to the balcony of the city’s primarily-white First Baptist Church. To establish their own place of worship, The First Colored Baptist Church of San Francisco was founded in 1852 in the home of Eliza and William Davis.

“The church was born out of struggle,” said the Rev. Amos C. Brown, who celebrated his 40th anniversary in September as the church's leader. According to Brown, the church was founded on the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies.

One of the church’s small group of founders reportedly traveled to San Francisco during the Gold Rush to work as a laborer and was eventually able to purchase his freedom; the 13th Amendment, which formally abolished slavery, wasn’t ratified until 1865.

Congregation members Geraldine, Annie and Francis at Clay and Hyde Streets on Easter Sunday, 1943. | Photo: The San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Public Library

It took two years for the church to move out of congregation members’ homes and into its first physical location on Grant Avenue (then Dupont Street) in Telegraph Hill. According to the church’s website, it was “the first Negro Baptist Church west of the Mississippi.”

Brown said the first black minister, the Rev. Charles Satchell, came to the church in 1856 from Cincinnati, Ohio, arriving via the Oregon Trail.

The Third Baptist Church, pictured in 1953 at its current location on McAllister Street. | Photo: The San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Public Library

In 1908, the name was legally changed to the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco. Although the church moved in and out of several buildings, it remained the city's sole black congregation until the 1940s. 

In 1952, Third Baptist Church settled on the corner of Pierce and McAllister streets in the Fillmore District and has been there ever since.

Third Baptist's sanctuary. | Photo: Third Baptist Church

In 1976, Brown succeeded Rev. F.D. Haynes, Jr., who’d taken over the congregation from his father, civil rights leader Rev. Douglas Haynes, Sr., in 1971. However, Haynes, Jr. suddenly passed away in 1975, leaving a series of interim pastors to serve the congregation until Brown arrived a year later.

A former Freedom Rider, Brown was one of eight students who studied under Martin Luther King, Jr. in the ‘60s. At 14, he organized the first National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council in Mississippi after Emmett Till’s murder in 1955.

In addition to his position within the church, Brown is also the President of the San Francisco NAACP. He was appointed to the Board of Supervisors by former Mayor Willie Brown in 1996 and served until 2001.

“We’ve been a bastion for all people, not just black people, who are looking for a spiritual community,” the reverend told Hoodline. “We’ve done some good things, we’ve supported the marginalized and the discriminated against, but we still have more to do as an African-American community.”

According to Brown, landmark status would ensure that there's always a physical representation of the culture, social justice and the spiritual community fostered by San Francisco’s black residents.

“In this city, we are fighting to hold onto our heritage in the Fillmore,” he said. “[With landmark status], there will be a continuous black presence in the city, and there will be a moral responsibility from the city to honor the African-Americans who live here.”

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