ALEXANDRIA, Va. (WDVM) — Behind the doors of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, members have been attending to worship since 1803. According to Deacon Alton Wallace, it was the only Baptist church in northern Virginia at that time.
Wallace, who is also a church historian, said part of the Black community’s reliance on the church stems from the earliest days of slavery. “It was one outlet that they permitted us to express,” said Wallace.
In 1803, 12 members began worshipping in the courthouse basement. In June that year, Wallace said they baptized the first Black member of the Alfred Street Baptist church.
Her name is Black Susan, she’s also known as Susan Black. She was the first slave to be baptized, but the church has more significant history.
“Alfred Street was the first church to ordain an African American woman as a minister in the state of Virginia in a black Baptist church,” said Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams, a Reverend at Alfred Street.
During the time of slavery, African Americans gathering together were a constant concern to white slave owners. However, Alfred Street was one of the few places Black people could go as their safe haven.
Fentress-Williams said out of all the churches in northern Virginia she chose Alfred Street because of Dr. Howard John Wesley, the lead pastor.
“Someone of principal and someone who is a remarkable preacher and visionary leader. I was not raised in the Baptist church but my husband was and so when I discovered that he had come to Virginia I knew this would be a good place for our family a place for our children to be raised,” said Fentress-Williams.
With over 8,000 members attending – church officials say the rich history and legacy are contributing factors.
Fentress-Williams said, “One of the things Pastor Wesley said — it’s my favorite thing to say over and over again — is that his job is to get us to think, not to tell us what to think. This is a church that values learning and thinking.”
As the congregation claps, members worship, and the choir sings, one former president has sat on the pew worshipping right along with them, Barack Obama.
“He worshiped here twice and to have a sitting president here of the United States worship here it’s a powerful testament to what kind of church we are,” said Wallace.
Alfred Street members also make it a mission to give back to the community. Last year they paid off a student’s school tuition, presenting them with $100,000.
A church treasuring its black history while still serving its members today.