By Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Pennsylvania’s oldest African Baptist Church has been sold to developers, underscoring major changes in South Philadelphia. Why are some of the city’s most historic Black landmarks being taken over?
For 110 years, First African Baptist Church has held service at 16th and Christian, but decades of disrepair and changing demographics in the area forced the church to sell its historic property.
“We came to the decision that we needed to move out of South Philly,” says Rev. Terrence Griffith, pastor of First African Baptist. Once considered a “mega” church, the congregation hovers around 100 members these days largely because many of the people who once attended the church no longer live in the area.
“Black churches have to seek new locations,” says Griffith, noting that his church is not the only place of worship that has opted to leave.
“Union Baptist Church out of which Marian Anderson came, Holy Trinity, Shiloh Baptist, I mean I can call the roll,” he says.
The choice was either move or fold under the weight of costly repairs. So First African packed up and sold their historic stone building for roughly $2 million, according to Griffith. The church is holding services temporarily at Audenreid Charter High School until they can move into their new property in West Philadelphia in July.
“When you talk about a church you are not talking about a building,” he says, “it’s the people who attend the church– we had to give the church a new lease on life.”
Griffith says part of the problem is gentrification, something he doesn’t blame on anyone, other than time. He says that new residents and development lead to limited parking and congregants being ticketed– this and the migration of African Americans out of South Philadelphia meant congregations were getting smaller and unable to support the expense of the bustling location.
“We have to ask what did we do that now Black churches have to move to new locations,” asks Griffith.
Unlike some churches, First African was designated a historic place, so developers must re-purpose the property while maintaining its character. Other historic churches were not so lucky. One example is the original Union Baptist Church at 12th and Bainbridge, the church Marian Anderson attended as a child, it was slated for demolition last year. The subsequent home of Union Baptist at 19th Fitzwater is still there.
“It was like our culture did not matter,” says Faye Anderson, a preservationist and community historian. She testified publicly to name First African as historic.
“It’s far more preferable than just demolishing it,” she says.
Griffith says First African lost money on the sale because of the “historic” designation, but he’s not against saving the church.
“I would advise any of those hoping to save it to raise money to help the developers,” he says.
The property is now owned by MLK Real Estate Associates. It has been reported that the property will be converted into office space.