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*On this date, in 1881, the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church was founded.
Located in Birmingham, Ala., it closely parallels the story of people freed from slavery following the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the ending of the American Civil War. Encouraged by Reverend M. Tyler, president of the Alabama State Convention, a small band of Christian men and women band together to assemble the beginning of this historical Baptist church which has grown to be one of the largest congregations in the Southeast. The founding members were Brothers M. G. Kendricks, Eli Parker, John Doaks, Yancy Kendricks, Henry McCoy, John Dudley, Eli Parker, Jr., T. W. Walker, and H. S. Howard; Sisters Sallie Kendricks, Fanny Jones, Jane Kendricks, Sarah Dudley, and Fanny Phillips.
This new congregation built a small building on the corner of Sixth Avenue, South, and Sixteenth Street. The first pastor called by this congregation was Rev. Silas Jones of Mt. Meigs. Alabama. A choir was organized in 1886, and the edifice was enlarged to 30’x45’. On April 14, 1888, the cornerstone was laid with Rev. J. W. Foster of Montgomery, Alabama, preaching the dedicatory sermon. Reverend J.Q.A. Wilhite was called to be the fourth pastor of the congregation in May 1895. When Reverend Wilhite took over the pulpit in 1895, the church was without a baptismal pool or parsonage and had an indebtedness of $2000.
Under his leadership, the church building was remodeled, the indebtedness retired, and additional property was acquired. A building fund was started, but in March 1907, the pastor's health failed, and he gave up his position. On the first Sunday in May 1908, Reverend John Washington Goodgame, Sr., the fifth pastor of the church, preached his first sermon. He came to the church from Anniston, Alabama. Well qualified intellectually and spiritually. By the third year of his pastorate, the building fund had grown to the extent that a building committee was appointed, and a contract was given to the Windham Brothers Construction Company.
The day following the awarding of the contract, the wooden structure caught fire and was destroyed. The Shiloh Baptist Church and other neighboring churches offered their facilities, but shortly thereafter, a tent was erected, and the membership continued working for a new edifice. Three thousand four hundred and fifty dollars was received as an insurance settlement. The groundbreaking event was highlighted by the daughter of Pastor Goodgame, Lucille, digging the first shovel of dirt and uttering the words, “except God be with the builder, the building will be in vain.” To celebrate the occasion, the members contributed $1.00 each.
The contractor started his work and finally laid the cornerstone in 1910 by the Grand Lodge, of which Bro. C. Fisher was chairman. Soon thereafter, a Moeller pipe organ was installed, and for twenty-nine years, Mrs. Jessie C. Reed was the efficient organist. During World War l, many men went to war. Those who remained continued working to liquidate the church debt. Terrible influenza broke out in 1917, causing many deaths, and churches were closed for two weeks.
On November 11, 1918, war peace was declared, and Sixth Avenue Baptist Church sponsored a grand reception for the returning heroes. In 1919, the church debt was liquidated, and little Miss Inez Williams, daughter of Deacon E. A. Williams, set fire to the mortgage while prayers were offered to Almighty God for guidance and protection. Rev. Goodgame was surrounded by loyal supporters, Miss Knapp, Miss Bowman (White), faithful members, a loving wife, and children. In those days, Sixth Avenue Baptist Church and the Southside Baptist, with Reverend J. H. Dillard as a pastor, enjoyed a unique relationship. In 1927, the cornerstone of the educational building was laid. Deacon T. R. Purdie was general superintendent of the Sunday Church School, assisted by Mrs. Carrie B. McQueen. The building was completed in 1928. Reverend Goodgame, Jr. accepted the call in March 1938 and preached his first sermon in May 1938. The church had an indebtedness of $18,000.00, liquidated under the new leadership.
The activities of young people in the church received special attention through a reorganization of the department. The great church became a great musical church, with four choirs singing each Sunday. Brother James Glover, a part of music at Sixth Avenue for over fifty years, was a featured soloist until his death. The church entered the radio ministry on Sunday mornings, and the gospel is still broadcast throughout the state over the radio. The sixth pastor carried his ministry to the rich and the poor. He was at home on the avenue and the alley. The main thrust under his pastorate was outreach to the poor and needy. Transportation for the young and aged was provided, first with a station wagon and then with a beautiful white and blue bus. In August 1962, Reverend John Thomas Porter was elected the church's seventh pastor. A graduate of Alabama State and Morehouse Colleges, and after nearly five years in the pastorate in Detroit, Michigan, he came to us young (age 31), vigorous, and with a great zeal to serve.
The congregation received this “son of the church” and pledged their support. The stewardship of time, talent, and material possessions was re-emphasized, and the congregational family was blessed. Sixth Avenue took the lead in an attempt to minister to all ages. The youth fellowship highlighted its year of activities with an annual “out of town” retreat. Oftentimes, these retreats carried us to campuses to inspire the high seniors to go on to college. The sanctuary was redecorated, and the parsonage improved. Community services included help to the poor, a school for retarded children at the church, and a kindergarten. In 1962, soon after the coming of Reverend Porter, the great civil rights revolution of the sixties hit the city. The cause of equal rights for Negroes was advanced, with the pastor and membership taking an active role. For the cause, the pastor was jailed three times, with the church family praying for his early and safe release.
The stature at the north entrance of Kelly Ingram Park (l7th Street and Fifth Avenue, North) represents the Reverends Porter, A. D. King, and N. H. Smith kneeling prayer at a major protest during the demonstrations. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke from the pulpit at mass rallies in the church sanctuary. The funeral of the young girls killed in the bombing of our sister church (Sixteenth Street Baptist) was held at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, with the Black and white communities attending. Realizing that the community had moved away and the future of the church edifice on the historic site was in question, the congregation moved to acquire twelve acres of land on Montevallo Road, Southwest, for the sum of one hundred twenty-five thousand dollars. Having successfully purchased the twelve acres from the Salvation Army, Lawrence Whitten and Son, Architects drew the plans for a new church.
On May 26, l968, services were held for the last time in the old church. Jefferson County was constructing a new hospital to provide better care to the poor on the site. Services were held at Ullman High School of the Birmingham Board of Education for a short period. Ullman High School was located on 12th Street and 7th Avenue, South. On January 3, 1969, the new church was constructed. Reverend Porter led an upbeat, progressive congregation to the end of the twentieth century, closing each church service with the reminder to “keep looking up.” On December 31, 1999, he officially retired as Senior Pastor of Sixth Avenue and became Pastor Emeritus. On May 14, 2000, after thirty-eight years of service, Reverend John Thomas Porter delivered his last sermon, reviewing the progress of Sixth Avenue Baptist. In November 2000, Reverend Al B. Sutton became the eighth pastor of the church, leading the congregation into the Twenty-first Century.